Just a few weeks ago in the Eastern Baltic off the coast of the Russian outpost, Kaliningrad, Russian fighter planes buzzed a US guided missile destroyer - with one plane flying within 100 feet of the ship. It was just another one of the probings and provocations that have gone on for several years as Russia and NATO members joust for maritime rights in what many describe a New Cold War. So I wasn’t especially surprised when I heard about the confrontation in the news. But what did catch my eye was the name of the ship: the Donald G. Cook.
My college roommate, Jack Downing, knew Donald Cook in the Marines. They met in early December 1964 on Okinawa. Both were selected to spend short tours as "on-the-job" trainees (OJT) in Vietnam, as part of an all-volunteer group to be assigned to Vietnamese combat units. At that time there were no regular U.S. ground troops in Vietnam - only "advisors."
What drew them together was that they both spoke Chinese and had a strong interest in Communist China. There was broad concern in Washington that if the U.S. entered the war, China might intervene on the side of the Communist North, as they had in Korea 15 years earlier.
Downing described Cook as a “picture-book Marine” who looked like he’d just stepped out of a recruiting poster but said he was nevertheless very down-to-earth and good humored.
In the summer of 1964, half their group of approximately 30 men went to Saigon and the Vietnamese Marine Brigade. The rest were assigned to South Vietnamese infantry units in the northern part of the country. Cook went south and Downing went north to the central highlands and they never saw each other again.
Years later, while working in Beijing, Downing got to know an American Foreign Service officer who’d been captured in Vietnam and imprisoned in the same Vietcong prison camp as Cook. Downing wasn’t surprised to hear that Cook had shown both courage and leadership while undergoing that ordeal.
Just opposite St. Michael's College in Colchester on Rt. 15 is a solitary granite statue, depicting Marine Corps Colonel Donald G. Cook, a St. Michael's graduate and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Cook died in that Vietcong prison camp in 1967. And today, St. Michael's most prestigious alumni honor is the Colonel Donald G. Cook '56 Award for unselfish service to others.