Heroes are commonly seen as people who face and overcome an external enemy. Marine Col. Donald Gilbert Cook is an example of someone who heroically faced an external enemy, but his greatness comes primarily from the war he waged against himself. This Catholic Marine posthumously received the Medal of Honor because of his strict adherence to the military code of conduct while a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
A Knight of the Blessed Sacrament
Since he died relatively young, the life story of Col. Donald Cook is a short one. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to very Catholic parents. His father was a truck driver, his mother a homemaker. He attended grade school at Immaculate Heart of Mary’s parochial school. His high school years were spent at St. Xavier, a Jesuit-run military prep school, where participation in the JROTC program was mandatory.
While his attendance at St. Xavier was the first step towards a career in the Marines, it also gave him a spiritual foundation that was crucial for the sufferings he would endure in the jungles of Vietnam. At Xavier, he was a member of the men’s sodality, a pious association whose members strove to increase their devotion to the Blessed Mother.
He was also a member of the Knights of the Blessed Sacrament. In the book, The First Marine Captured in Vietnam, author Col. Donald Price1 writes that as a Knight, the young Donald Cook learned the Saint Joseph’s soldier’s prayer by heart, which he would later recite daily as a POW in Vietnam. Within the Knights, he belonged to the Guard of Honor, whose members also attended Mass every Wednesday. This was not difficult for Cook since he had the custom of receiving communion daily.
Upon graduation in 1952, he attended St. Michael’s College in Winooski, Vermont, where he met his future wife, Laurette Giroux. Students of the College were referred to as Michaelmen and were required to know the school’s extraordinary credo, “The Michaelman’s Creed.” This creed proposed staunchly Catholic principles applied to learning along with a warrior ethos.
“The ideal education,” it explains, “has been perfectly realized in the life of Jesus Christ. . . From Him, we have received truths of supreme importance for the whole of life, truths which have given new meaning to human existence.” Calling upon the warrior angel, the prayer finishes with the young man placing himself under “the patronage of the great Archangel Michael” while recognizing his “special duty to be a valiant defender of religion and Christian Morality.”
During his senior year, Donald Cook would gather those in the freshman dorm assigned to him and recite this beautiful creed. He would then have the young men kneel and lead them in the recitation of the Rosary.
“On the Job Training”
After graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and attended Officer Candidate School, where he was held in great respect. One of his senior officers, Capt. Jack Smith, described him as very handsome and someone who could easily be a model Marine for a recruiting poster. “He had a beautiful smile,” Capt. Smith said, “but as long as I knew him, I never heard him laugh.” This serious and professional demeanor is what made him such an example among fellow Marines.
He was also described as a person who could always outdrink other Marines without becoming intoxicated. Although he indulged in libations, he never joined fellow servicemen when they regrettably visited houses of ill repute. He chose instead to spend his time studying, especially languages. He became fluent in German, French, Mandarin and later Vietnamese. He also took time to study everything he could about the Vietnamese culture, geography, history and so on.
In 1961, he was sent to Hawaii, where he studied the code of conduct of POWs in the Korean War and the interrogation techniques used by the Communist Chinese on Americans. This crucial course prepared him for what lay ahead. He wrote an insightful pamphlet on what he learned, which would be useful, not only for himself but other American POWs who were subjected to tortures at the hands of sadistic Communists.
During his time in Hawaii, the Marines started a program somewhat humorously titled “On the Job Training” (OJT). The program’s purpose was “to develop a cadre of platoon and company level leaders with boots-in-the-mud experience in the intensifying conflict [in Vietnam].” Marines selected to participate in this new program were sent to Vietnam for thirty days to acquire battle experience. Three years later, Donald Cook was chosen for the program.
In 1964, he was sent to Vietnam, serving with Vietnamese Marines. Several weeks later, on December 23, he was shot in the leg and captured during the Battle of Binh Gia.
Battle of Binh Gia
Binh Gia, which in Vietnamese means “peaceful house,” was anything but tranquil when the Communist guerillas invaded.
This tiny village in South Vietnam was home to a small group of Catholics who had migrated from the North in 1954 after the French defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. These Tonkanese Catholics were militantly anti-communist, and their experience with the atheistic communist regime led them to be very vigilant. After setting up their village, they established a militia and surrounded their tiny village with a moat into which they planted sharp punji spears for unsuspecting invaders. They also dipped the points into buffalo dung to poison the blood of those who dared to trespass. Everyone was involved in its defense, including the militia that took advantage of every able-bodied person, even women and children.
While their vigilance was prudent, it could not withstand the attack suffered in the waning days of December 1964. A large group of Vietcong ferociously attacked Binh Gia. The Marines set up their headquarters in the largest of the three Churches, which had a tower that provided a place of prayer and reflection for villagers as well as a lookout for the enemy.
These Catholics were not merely random targets of Communist aggression. They were specifically singled out because of their elite status as Catholic warriors who would fight to the death.
This was clearly seen by the treatment meted out to them by the commander of the Vietcong forces, Col. Ta Minh Kahm. Upon entering the Church, his troops shot the crucifix off the front door. Faithful villagers were then unceremoniously driven out at bayonet point as Col. Kahm’s men cursed them, the pope and the Catholic religion.
Col. Cook’s Last Letter Home to His Wife Laurette
As this attack was advancing, Donald Cook was writing what would be his last letter as a free man to his wife, Laurette.
. . . In my situation, I think about life and death every minute because it is all around me. I can honestly say that I do not fear death itself because I am in the state of grace and life is just so long, but I fear death because, and only because of the pain it would bring to you and the children. . . Fear not for me,” he ends his letter, “for our lives are in the hands of God.
His capture caused an enormous amount of unease among the high command in the Marine Corps. Colonel Cook had top-secret security clearance and was, therefore, a treasure trove of information if the enemy could pry it out of him. They would later discover that their fears about Colonel Cook were utterly unfounded.
Upon capture, he was placed in POW camp with two other Americans, Sgt. Harold G. Bennett and PFC Charles Kraft. As the senior ranking member of the group, he was in charge.
During his three years in captivity, he was held with ten Americans. Seven made it out alive and reported on his heroics, which contributed to his receiving the Medal of Honor. Doug Ramsey stayed with him the longest. The first time he laid eyes on Col. Cook, he described how his “piercing eyes, gave him a look of slight arrogance, as well as the self-confidence still appropriate to a Marine officer, even if being held in a prison camp. Cook’s body movements were still crisp and his manner that of one still fully in charge of his destiny.”
This last observation was not entirely accurate since Col. Cook knew any power he had on his “destiny” came from on high. His cavalier attitude toward death on numerous occasions demonstrated this conviction.
“God is the One Who Decides When I Am to Die”
As a POW, he never strayed an inch from the requirements outlined in the military Code of Conduct, even when other POWs did. They would, for example, often write lengthy confessions which did not give substantial information to the enemy but earned them rewards like better food. Cook never wrote a single line. He treated his captors with scorn but was a father to his men.
On one occasion, the prisoners were force-marched from one POW camp to another. Sergeant Bennett was too weak to keep up and finally collapsed against a tree. This would have earned him a swift execution if not for the intervention of Donald Cook, who courageously told the guards that they were going to stop and rest. When he and Sgt. Bennett made a failed escape attempt, they overpowered and roughed up a guard who tried to apprehend them. When other Communist guards arrived, livid with the two Americans. One pulled out a gun, pointed at Col. Cook and said, “I shall now kill. I have the authority to do so.”
“You can’t kill me,” Col. Cook calmly replied. “Only God can decide when I die.” He was miraculously spared, but this scene repeated itself later. This time he looked down the barrel of the gun pointed at his head and began spouting off its classification: make, model and velocity of the bullets it would fire. Once again, his life was saved.
He illustrated this type of self-control on yet another occasion when a guard informed him that he was to dig a grave. When Col. Cook asked who it was for, the guard said, “It’s for you.”
He perceived the reply was a psychological tactic of the enemy to break him. Thus, as he dug, Col. Cook periodically laid down in his own “grave” to make sure he would fit.
Such mind games were also used to corrupt the morals of prisoners. This is what Col. Cook noticed when a female “prisoner” named Collette Embarger suddenly appeared in camp. She was a French-Vietnamese interpreter whose father had become a Communist. This woman, dubbed “the Dragon Lady” by POWs, was curiously given preferential treatment.
She would frequently saunter around the camp in pretty dresses and pungent perfume as a means of enticing lonely prisoners to sin. The game became apparent when she began to flirt with Cook. He simply put his head down, kept custody of his gaze and remained silent.
Laurette waited years to find out the fate of her husband. It was eventually determined that he died of his illnesses on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1967. He was 33 years old, the “perfect age,” since it was the number of years Our Lord walked this earth.
Lessons from Col. Cook’s Life
The life of Col. Donald Cook contains many lessons. The most important one is how practicing the Catholic faith in times of peace prepares one to endure life in times of hardships, which all experience. Holy Mother Church provides the spiritual weapons, namely the Blessed Eucharist and devotion to the Holy Mother of God. Col. Cook always carried his rosary and regularly went to confession. He did not fear death because he was always ready to go before the Divine Tribunal.
A second lesson is the importance of custody of the eyes, which was exemplified by his attitude towards the libertine “prisoner” Collette Embarger. This seemingly insignificant episode shines more spectacularly because it is not what one would expect from the modern soldier. Col. Cook’s purity and fidelity to his wife Laurette is sublime. One does not have to be a POW to experience temptations against the flesh. They are everywhere in the modern world. The Church teaches the faithful how to combat them. What enters the eyes can elevate or sully the soul. Thankfully this marine was an example that faithfulness to the sixth Commandment is possible, even under the most severe duress.
Finally, his life teaches the lesson of the power of a good example. Those who save themselves, as Col. Cook hopefully did, do not enter paradise alone. They draw others with them by their example. He is a role model whose Catholic life inspired the Marines and civilians who knew him. His was a life well-lived.
1. Col. Donald Price, The First Marine Captured in Vietnam (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007) All quotations hereafter are taken from Col. Price’s book, which is the only biography of Col. Donald Cook..