Monday, March 31, 2014

Gil Cook: "A Sincere and Well-Meant Search for the Truth"

Gil Cook

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

After Gil's plane went down over Burma on October 28, 1943, his mother received a telegram declaring him missing.  In the year that followed, Madgalene Barrett Rutherfurd tried to find out the truth of what happened to her son.  She was not the only one doing so.  The pilot of Gil's plane, 1st Lieutenant James M. Reese of Virginia, left behind a fiancee, Jane Luce of Kansas City, Missouri, who clung to hope that he might have survived the downing of his plane.  When the War Department could not provide news, she appealed to her congressman, Roger C. Slaughter of Missouri, for clarity.  She also found an address for Gil's mother and wrote her a letter.  Here is the text of her letter, sent via the Red Cross. It was likely written in May of 1944.

Dear Mrs. Rutherfurd-

Perhaps it would be best if I introduced myself.  I am Jim Reese's fiancee.  Ever since the boys have been missing, I have wanted to write you, but it took me some time to find your address, and also we did not hear about Jim until about six weeks after he was down.  I was visiting the Reeses at the time.

There have been so many rumors and all as to what happened to the plane, that I decided to check the last one I heard before I said anything to anyone.  I met this boy who had returned from the Tenth Air Force.  He did not know Jim and his crew, but knew what had happened to his plane.  Said that one of his own planes had dropped a five hundred pound bomb on him.  I wrote to our congressman, who is a personal friend, and asked him to check.  The enclosed letter is a copy of the reply sent to him.  Believe that it is the most accurate and straightest report that we have had.

I have checked with the Heads here and they say to discredit any other rumors we might have heard and to base our hopes on this.  I certainly do think it is encouraging, though I can't see how the boys can be anything but prisoners.  Though it is possible that they may have been picked up by the natives.  Either way, it will be many long months before we hear, and will just have to have enough confidence in the boys to know that they got out.

Of all Jim's crew, I was the most devoted to Cookie, he was so much like Jim in his quiet way that I have a special spot in my heart for him.  They were both grand pilots, and if anybody could have gotten out, they could.  Also, they had an especially good and well-trained crew, so my bet is on the boys.  When they were stationed at Topeka, the boys were all at the house quite a bit, and I wouldn't take anything for the two weeks I had with them.  I drove them all to the base the day they reported back from their last leave.  They all stood on the front porch and said, "We don't want to go fight this war," and they looked very young and very wistful, but that mood lasted for only a minute - and off they went.

Would certainly appreciate it if you would let me know if you hear anything further, and you can rest assured that I will keep you posted.  Please excuse this typed letter, but you wouldn't be able to decipher my handwriting.


S/ Jane Luce

A B-24 Liberator, the type of plane Gil Cook flew.  Source

Jane's congressman, Roger C. Slaughter*, made a request to the War Department on April 7, 1944 for more information about the downing of Jim and Gil's plane.  This request was made to Col. W. H. S. Wright in the Secretary of War's office. After receiving no response, Congressman Slaughter again petitioned the War Department for information.  The following letter was sent to Congressman Slaughter on April 27, 1944:

My Dear Roger,

I have your letter of April 26th in which you refer to your earlier letter of April 7th in the interest of Lieutenant James M. Reese.

I regret the delay incident to formulating an accurate reply to your inquiry.  As you realize, complete information on all casualties is not sent in to Washington from the various theaters.  Due to the overburdening of our communication facilities with operational message of a high order of priority, it is possible to send back to this country from the theaters only the bare essentials relative to casualties.  These essentials are given to the relatives at the time of notification.  In order to get further details it is necessary to contact the combat theater concerned through radio channels which, as I stated above, carry an immense quantity of operational messages daily. Hence, the delay in getting information as to the particulars concerning Lieutenant Reese.

Fairly complete information has now been obtained through the above channels, and the particulars are as follows:

The missing air crew report received in this headquarters indicated that Lieutenant Reese was the pilot of a B-24 (Liberator), bomber which participated in a bombardment mission to Southern Burma on October 28, 1943.  The report further indicates that while over the bomb run, and a few seconds following the release of bombs by Lieutenant Reese's element, three of our ships were seem to cross above this element, and two bombs were seen to fall, one of which struck the plane piloted by Lieutenant Reese, at the base of the No. 2 engine.  The bomb fell right through but did not explode.  The airplane maintained level flight for a short period, then fell off towards the earth.  There is no indication in the report as to the caliber of the bombs dropped nor to the contributing circumstances attending this regrettable accident.  There may be a dozen or more reasons indicated, ranging all the way from unexpected enemy action during the hazards of a complicated air operation to the tenseness with which some men are afflicted while under enemy fire, which causes them to do the unpredictable.

Although this accident is regrettable, we cannot lose sight of the hazards to war and the complexities of battle situations.  When unusual incidents occur, immediate steps are taken in an effort to prevent recurrences, but never before have we been compelled to deal with the complications we are faced with today in modern warfare.

I sincerely regret that you are under the impression that the War Department seeks to conceal information from the press and public on these accidents of modern warfare.  Such things have been inherent in the art of warfare since the dawn of time.  You, yourself, probably know that it often occurs that friendly troops sometimes become casualties when a short from our own barrage falls among them, or that our own troops are sometimes caught by our own over-head machine gun fire.  This is one of the necessary hazards of war, and is inherent in all mobile and uncertain situations.  Those who criticize us most severely are frequently those un-familiar with the conditions of war.

I hope that the above answers your questions.  I should be most happy to get together with you sometime and talk this whole thing over, because I think that the situation relative to the reporting of losses needs clarification, and that much criticism is due primarily to misunderstandings arising in a sincere and well-meant search for the truth.

Very sincerely yours,
S/ W.H.S. Wright
Colonel, Cavalry
Aide to the Secretary of War

Six months after the accident Gil's mother finally knew the truth; Her son's plane was downed by friendly fire.  However, neither she nor Jane Luce knew that the men were dead.  That would take another six months.

* Congressman Roger C. Slaughter was a Princeton-educated lawyer who was elected congressman in 1942 and 1944, but got on the wrong side of President Harry Truman after he failed to support some of his bills.  Truman worked to oust Slaughter from office, and Slaughter lost his 1946 campaign to Truman-supported Enos Axtell.  More information can be found here.

To be continued...

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