Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gil Cook: Ascension Island to India

This is the third post in a series about my Grandma's cousin, Lawrence Gilbert Cook.

Gil Cook and his unit, part of the Army Air Corps 436th Bomber Squadron, arrived on Ascension Island, en route to World War II’s Pacific Theater, on May 5, 1943.  The island is located in the Atlantic Ocean, about midway between South America and Africa.
During World War II, to supply and augment extensive amphibious aircraft antisubmarine patrol operations ongoing from the early days of the war, the United States built an airbase on Ascension Island, known as "Wideawake", after a nearby colony of Sooty Terns (locally called 'Wideawake' birds because of their loud, distinctive call, which would wake people early in the morning). (source

On the same day that Gil arrived on Ascension Island, a B26 went down en route to the island. Gil and his crew were asked to go out on a search. In his journal, Gil describes searches that took place over the next several days, apparently all in vain.
May 6
A B26 went down yesterday on its way here so they have asked us to go out on a search. A pilot and navigator from another B26 are going along.

No luck today, it was pretty hazy so we couldn’t see over 2 or 3 miles. His portable radio would have been the only chance.

May 7
We’re going out on the search again. It’s getting hazier and hazier. Still have quite a way to go though. Hope they are cranking that radio today.

May 8
No luck again yesterday. Not going out today because of some hydraulic trouble. We went fishing and swimming down on the rocks today (this morning). The fish are really eager here. Some pretty colored ones too. This afternoon we helped on a 25 hour inspection. The fellow that searched with us the first day went down today. He was rescued but the other three fellows in his crew were killed. We had slept with them the night before in tent number 13.

On May 9th, Gil and his unit left Ascension Island, apparently without locating the missing B26. They landed in Accra, Ghana later that day.  Gil reacted to Africa in his journal.
Africa is not what I had pictured. The beaches along the shore look like perfect swimming places. Good surf. The ground is covered with green grass and a few scrub trees. There are a lot of red mud mounds all around. Guess they were ant hills. Some of them are about 10 feet high. All the dirt is red. I see now why some planes are painted pink.

The next day, Gil and his unit left Accra and continued east to Kano, Nigeria.
The natives live in small villages, about 10 huts in each. They just clear a hole in the jungle and fence in their village in the plains. All the villages are filled with goats and they all dash for the houses when the plane flys over. The natives all dash out, guess there’s quite a battle right at the doorway.

The portion of Gil’s journal that I have ends on May 11th, while he and his unit were still in Nigeria. He described his distaste for Kano and a level of filth he was unaccustomed to. He seems to have been overwhelmed by the impoverished conditions and sick, hungry locals.  I think that despite the conditions and the somewhat alien nature of the new countries he was visiting, it had to have been an incredible journey for Gil, a young man who hadn't seen anything of the world prior to literally flying across it.  I wonder how it would have changed him, had he made it home from the war and been able to reflect upon the things he saw and experienced.

The next definite record I have of Gil’s location is September 18, 1943. He had by then arrived in India, where the 436th was stationed. On September 18th, he wrote a letter to his uncle George Rutherfurd, the husband of his aunt Julia Barrett Rutherfurd (my great-grandmother).

India, Sept. 18th

Dear Uncle George,

I received your letter some time ago but have just been too lazy to write.  It's a funny thing, the less I do the less I want to do.  As you know, everything just about stops during these monsoons and I'm no exception.  I average about fifteen hours sleep a day and still feel tired most of the time.

We did have a little fun a while back though.  The weather cleared and it looked as though the monsoon season was at an end.  During that time, I went on five missions in seven days.  All together now I have eleven completed missions to my credit so you can see how much flying we've done the rest of the time.  The weather is bad again now, in fact it has been worse than ever.

Joe Zofco, the bombardier on our crew, and I had a little excitement the other day.  We flew over to another field about fifty miles from here in a little P.T. 22, (a Ryan trainer we have here to use on small errands) to buy some new shoes, stamps and a few other things.  Anyway when we got back to this area a good size rain storm was here and we couldn't see the field.  We flew around a bit, waiting for it to leave, but our gas was running low so we headed back to the other field.  About two miles from the runway the gas petered out so there wasn't much else to do except start down.  I picked what looked like a fairly level field and landed.  We hit the field O.K. but when we finished rolling the front end of the plane was in a rice paddy.  Neither of us were even scratched and we just put one hole in the left wing and blew the tail wheel.  The next day we went out in a truck, got the plane, fixed it up and flew home.  When we got home, all the colonel said was, "Glad to see you back."  Sure got razzed from the rest of the fellows though.

Except for being a little quiet, this is as good a theater to be in as any and from all the newspapers and rumors I guess it won't be quiet very much longer.  Our living quarters aren't bad, the food is really pretty good and there's a swell bunch of fellows here.  Our entertainment consists of a movie about twice a week, several gramophones around the place and a radio that can pick up a station in Calcutta.  The news is all that's worth listening to, though.  We get a three day pass about every three months but that doesn't mean much.  Right here on our field is about the only place in India to get a clean bed and decent food.  We went to [this section cut out of letter - apparently censored] ...spend three days there for less than 300 rupees (about $100). That probably is contrary to everything you've heard about India but it's the truth.  Our money is worth a lot to an Indian but it doesn't go very far for us.

Well guess that's about all so I'd better quit.  Be sure to say "hello" for me and I'd sure like to hear from you again when you get a chance to write.

Bye for now,

Gil was 25 years old. He had just over a month to live.

To be continued...

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