Monday, May 22, 2017

Gil Cook: New Information

Gil Cook in 1942 while training at Gardner Army Airfield, California

My mother's cousin Mary recently came to visit, and she brought photos and letters that had belonged to her mother, Patricia Rutherfurd, half-sister of Gil Cook. This treasure trove of pictures and documents included letters that shared additional information about Gil's service in the 436th Bombardment Squadron during World War II.

As I wrote in my initial series of posts about Gil, his plane went down over Burma on October 28, 1943 after being hit by friendly fire. Initially, the Army telegrammed the families of the men on board the plane that their sons were missing. It took six months for them to learn the truth, that all the men had perished in the accident. My mother once told me that her parents, Glenn and LaVerne Smith, were actually the first to learn what really happened to Gil, and they found out not from the Army, but from a friend who had been stationed in India with Gil. I was stunned that families would have to learn such terrible news from friends, while the Army would say only that the men were missing.

Gil during his military training

In the collection of letters that Mary gave me, I found the original document my grandparents received in November 1943 from their friend Dick, telling them what happened on that fateful day over Burma. I quote here from the letter, dated November 20, 1943
Glenn, in a more serious light, I'm sorry to report that Lt. Cooke was killed in action. My old roommate wrote me from the squadron I was formerly in with Lt. Cooke that Lt. Cooke's plane was hit by a bomb in mid-air and shortly afterward his plane fell in flames to the ground. No one was seen to jump from the flaming ship. 
This hurts me to report this, but I know you people would want the truth. I felt terrible about the whole incident. Gosh, how I liked Lt. Cooke and so did everyone else.  Please, extend my heart felt sympathies to his family and LaVerne.
My grandmother, LaVerne, was very close to her cousin Gil. Born just weeks apart, they grew up very near each other in Los Angeles and had a sibling-like relationship. How devastating it must have been to receive this letter, and to have to tell Gil's mother what eyewitnesses said had happened to her son.

Gil's mother, Magdalene Barrett Rutherfurd, had received an initial telegram from the War Department on November 3, 1943, six days after her son's death, informing her that Gil was missing. A number of letters went back and forth between various military officials and the families of those killed on Gil's plane over the following months, but it took six months for official confirmation of the deaths. It is disappointing that it took so long for the families to be told the truth, since depositions taken by officers in Burma on November 7th indicated clearly that the plane went down in flames and no survivors were seen. However, Magdalene must have known from early on that she was unlikely to be reunited with her son, given the letter from Dick on November 20th.

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