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Decorated WWII Veteran Hugh Cook Dies at 101

By Sherrie Norris

Hugh Cook, a young soldier from Boone, became an American hero on the battlefields in Italy during WW II. Photo submitted.

Hugh Cook, one of Watauga County’s last remaining World War II veterans — and quite possibly the oldest — passed away on Friday, Nov. 25, at his home in Boone with family by his side. 

One year ago, we featured Cook in High Country Magazine, after an enjoyable  interview with him in his lovely mountaintop home with his wife, Cleo, and daughter Linda Johnson, present. 

Even at 100, Cook was able to recall most details of his life’s journey; even the “hard times,” were usually retold with a little humor thrown in to soften the blow of reality. 

As a member of the quickly fading “Greatest Generation,” Cook was a decorated veteran who was honored with a number of medals during his military service, including two bronze stars. He wasn’t one to boast, but he did hold those commendations close to his heart — and the reasons for  them were never far from his mind.

Cook was drafted into the Army on Oct. 1, 1942, which happened to be his 21st birthday. He was one of 200 boys, “four busloads of us,” he said, who left Boone together at the invitation of “Uncle Sam.” He and two of his brothers served at the same time.

One of the most recent Cook family photos taken with their beloved patriarch, Hugh Cook, standing far right. Photo submitted

He was first inducted at Fort Jackson, S.C., completed basic training at Camp White in Oregon and then before coming back to the east coast, did his artillery training in Yakimaw, Wash.

He shipped out from Newport News, Va. on the USS Hunt, describing it as a small ship  carrying about 500 men in a convoy of about 200. 

For 27 days,  they were seasick with very little 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 remembered 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 recalled 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,” he described, the enemy hovered over the mountains, firing down upon the American troops scattered along the beachfront. “They had the vantage point, 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 would 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 described.

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

 Four Watauga County WW II heroes stand together for one of their last photos during the unveiling of the veteran’s memorial on King Street in Boone on July 4, 2018. From left: David Watson, Glen Cottrell, Hugh Cook and H.C. Moretz. Moretz is now the lone survivor of the group. Photo by Sherrie Norris

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.

It was for that act of heroism that Cook received his  bronze star. 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, where the Germans playing cards and pool, were 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 with a chuckle.

Cook remembered 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 earlier trip over. “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.

Hugh and Cleo Cook, seated, are pictured with longtime friends, Dwight and Virginia Critcher, during Hugh’s 100th “drive-by” birthday celebration last year. Photo by Sherrie Norris 

“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.”

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.

 After serving in the military, Cook moved to Cleveland, Ohio, 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 at the age of 65, after 18 years. 

Cook was 35 when he married his sweetheart Cleo Bolick, on April 18, 1956.  They had four children. 

Obituary for Hugh Cook

Perhaps his daughter, Linda Cook Johnson, said it best when she shared on her FB page on Friday: “I am equally grateful and devastated! 101 years wasn’t enough for me, but I know he is having a big time with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and the many, many relatives and friends who are there! To borrow a phrase from some dear friends —It’s OK, Dad, I will see you in a minute!”

According to his obituary, Charlie Hugh Cook was born October 1, 1921, son of the late Charlie and Laura Thompson Cook. He was an avid sportsman playing baseball, softball, bowling, fox hunting and golf. He particularly enjoyed many years of judging field trials with his brother, Hade, and also golfing with Hade, his sons and his many friends. Hugh “retired” from golfing at the age of 98. He also sang tenor as part of the Hagaman Family Quartet for more than 30 years. He was a member of Mount Vernon Baptist Church since 1939; as a 17-year-old, he worked on building the original rock church by carrying rocks and mixing cement. Hugh was beloved by his family, friends, church family and his Boone Golf Course buddies.

Hugh and Cleo enjoyed traveling to Branson, Missouri each year to his Army reunions and re-connecting with his fellow soldiers. They also enjoyed traveling with their friends on several trips to see our great nation. Their greatest joy was spending time with their chileren, four grandchildren and more recently, their great-grandson.

In addition to his parents, Hugh was preceded in death by one son, Doyle Cook, and nine brothers and sisters. Surviving is his wife, Cleo B. Cook; two sons, Dwight Cook and Darryl Cook; one daughter, Linda Johnson and husband Titus Johnson; four grandchildren, Seth Cook and wife, Maya; Macy Cole and husband, Troy; Autumn Smith and husband Logan; Bradley Johnson; and one great-grandson, Brewer Hugh Smith, along with a number of nieces and nephews.

The family will receive friends on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, from 9:30 a.m. to 11  a.m. at Mount Vernon Baptist Church with funeral services immediately following at 11 a.m. Pastor Bud Russell will officiate.

Flowers or memorial contributions may be made to Hospice of Boone and Mount Vernon Baptist Church.

Hampton Funeral and Cremation Service is in charge of the arrangements.