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Hugh Cook, a young American soldier from Boone, became an American hero on the battlefields in Italy. Submitted photo

Originally published: 2012-11-10 22:09:48
Last modified: 2012-11-10 22:09:48

A true American hero

by Sherrie Norris

The term “hero” is often used loosely these days, but not when describing Hugh Cook of Boone, a World War II Army veteran who put his life on the line, more than once, for his comrades during 15 months in combat.

Although decorated for his courage and victorious leadership in the 91st Infantry Division’s Field Artillery, Cook, now 91, doesn’t talk much about those days as a sergeant leading his men through four major battles.

Cook was drafted into the army on Oct. 1, 1942 — his 21st birthday. He was one of 200 boys, “four busloads of us,” he said, who left Boone at the same time, headed out for military service. He and two of his brothers served at the same time.
Inducted into the military at Fort Jackson, S.C., Cook completed his basic training at Camp White in Oregon and  training at Camp White in Oregon and artillery training in Yakimaw, Wash., before returning east.

“I left out of Newport News, Va., headed overseas on the USS Hunt,” he said. “It was a small ship, really, carrying about 500 men and I was told, in a convoy of about 200 (ships). For 27 days, we were all seasick and had nothing to eat, except split pea soup — and it was buggy.”

The troops first landed in Oran, Africa, and on to Sicily for a short while before settling into battle in Italy, mainly in the Naples area, the most heavily bombed Italian city during the war.

Cook remembers bypassing Rome and fighting his way through Leghorn, Pisa, Florence, the Gothic Line, across the Arno River, and into the Po Valley. Transportation varied, he said.

“I rode anything going my way — a horse, a German motorcycle, a tank, a Jeep and a cow,” he said.
He recalls laying on his back in irrigation ditches, trying to dodge the shells flying overhead and once, with a snake crawling over his chest.

As “the German’s perfect target in Anzio,” the enemy hovered over the mountains, firing down upon the American troops scattered along the beachfront. “They had the vantage point,” he said, “but we weren’t there long before we blowed them off that mountain.”

He remembers well the U.S. Air Force’s 500 planes, 12 per group, coming across the sky in America’s defense.

He will never forget the Anzio Express, the railway artillery used by Germany throughout the war.

“It was loud, like no other,” he said. “They’d bring it out of the hills, fire it, and take it right back in. One morning when it came out, we just happened to be right there and captured it.”

After taking control of the weapon, Cook’s buddies picked him up and “crammed” him into its barrel, he said. When he asked how he was going to get out of it, he was told, “We’ll just blow you out.”

Those were among the lighter moments, Cook said, but the more intense seem to weigh heavier on his mind. He was wounded several times and had more close calls than he can count.

Crossing a minefield that “lit up like a football field,” and making it to safety was a miracle, he said.

Jumping down a 50-foot embankment in the crossfire landed him with three broken ribs; at one time, “the shelling blowed a 35-pound radio off my back and blew it to pieces,” he said.

On one occasion, he had just exited a jeep and was running to safety, when the jeep “blew sky high,” he said.

In one fierce battle, Cook’s lieutenant deserted the troops. “He told me to take over,” Cook said.

Without hesitation, Cook ordered an attack and gave his men cover while allowing them to escape.

Cook was awarded a bronze star for that heroic act.

Cook remembers the Gothic Line Mountain as a “solid rock barrier we had to go through.”

“It was rough country,” he said. “The Germans were hiding out in caves on steep rock cliffs and were shooting right down on us.”

Out of the 140 American soldiers who climbed “straight up,” Cook said, he was one of only nine who came back down — with captives in tow.
In the Po Valley, he said. “I was real close to Glen Cottrell (of Boone) when he was taken prisoner, but I didn’t know it at the time.”

As a “forward observer,” Cook was responsible for directing artillery and mortar fire; one specific call could easily have changed the course of history, he said, as he had his gunner set sights on the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

“We weren’t supposed to fire on the tower, which was just about a quarter of a mile away,” he said.

“We could see right into the top, were the Germans playing cards and pool, looking right down on us.” A shot went in that direction, anyway, he said, “but missed it by just a little bit.” He never talked about it for many years until his division met for a reunion in Branson, Mo. “My captain said he always wondered who fired that shot,” he said.

Cook remembers the Germans as big men who always looked clean.

Just before Cook’s arrival in Milan, Mussolini “and his two lady friends had just been hanged,” he said. “I never saw him, but some of my buddies did.”

After Milan, they backtracked about 25-30 miles to Teresa, Italy, where they stayed in airplane hangars for the summer as the heat of the battle waned.

“I was lucky to make our division’s baseball team,” he said. “If you made the team, you didn’t have to pull extra duty.” He and his cousin, Dorman (Doc) Cook, also from Boone (and one of six brothers in service at the same time), had been stationed together and played baseball in different parts of Italy, in those last days of war.

“We had orders for Japan when they dropped the atomic bomb,” he said. “We were tickled to death when we heard it was over. By that time, the Italians had come over to our side and treated us very well.”

The return trip home in November 1945 was reminiscent of their first. “We were so sick, again,” he said.

Bad weather diverted their landing from New York to Boston, where the Salvation Army welcomed them each with a half-pint of milk and a donut.

“They took us to town to a cafeteria and fed us real good,” he said.

From Boston, Cook rode a train to Ft. Bragg.

“We hired a taxi to Hickory and thumbed back to Boone,” he said.

Just as he started up the street, he met his surprised, but relieved, mother in front of Belk.

“These days, the whole country is there to meet soldiers coming home, but nobody was there for us that day,” he said.

Cook moved to Cleveland for three years before returning to Boone where he worked for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company for 17 years. He later retired from the steam plant at Appalachian State University after 18 years.

Cook was 35 when he married Cleo Bolick, who is nearly 12 years his junior.

“I had to wait for her to grow up,” he said about his wife of 56 years, who spent 30 years as a teacher.

They have three children; Darrell and Dwight Cook and Linda Johnson, and four grandchildren.

Cook is one of the oldest members of Mount Vernon Baptist Church, where he has attended most of his life.

“That church prayed for us local boys while we were overseas — about 40 of us at one time — and not a one of us from the Bamboo area was seriously wounded or killed,” he said.

Cook sang in a quartet for 30 years, and, today, he’s healthy and stays active by playing golf four days a week, weather permitting.

Hugh Cook participated in the WWII Symposium held earlier this year at ASU and is one of 30 local World War II veterans featured in the Veterans Voice, a collection of interviews recorded during the last year — both opportunities made possible by The Appalachian High Country World War II Roundtable.