Robert L. Cook was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1919. He grew up there and graduated from William Penn High School in the Class of 1937. He then attended Gettysburg College, participating in the Army ROTC program, and was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant, Infantry, upon graduation in June 1941.
Bob entered active duty on August 13, 1941 and was posted to 3rd Armored Division at Camp Polk, Louisiana for about six weeks, during all of which time the division was in the field engaged in war game maneuvers along the Texas and Louisiana borders. He was next sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for several training courses in the Armored Forces School, following which he was assigned to the cadre of 5th Armored Division, also at Fort Knox. In June 1942, after being promoted to 1st Lt, he was transferred to the 9th Armored Division at Fort Riley, Kansas. In October 1942, Lt Cook was selected for pilot training in grade, and ordered to the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center at Lackland Army Air Field.
Bob Cook went through Primary Flight School at Corsicana, Texas, Basic Flight School at Majors Field in Greenville, Texas, and then did his advanced flight training at Ellington Field in Houston where he received his pilots wings in June 1943. From there he was ordered to Clovis, New Mexico for B-24 (the liberator, heavy bomber) transition training.
The 455th Bomb Group was activated at Clovis on July 8, 1943 and Bob Cook was the first pilot assigned when the group was formed. Bob was in the groups 743rd Bomb Squadron and they trained for combat at Clovis and Alamogordo, New Mexico, and Salt Lake City, Utah, before moving to Langley, Virginia where all elements of the group were assembled for the first time. The 455th began their deployment to Europe on Christmas Day 1943. They flew the southern route, from Florida to Brazil, to Africa, and from there, up to Cerignola, Italy. Upon arrival, the group became a part of the 304th Bomb Wing, 15th Air Force.
The 455th operated from San Giovanni Air Field about five miles outside Cerignola. Bob remembers that they were set up in tents in an olive grove and that the airstrip and facilities were not well developed. The 455th Bomb Group was soon in action, flying its first combat mission on February 16, 1944. The group would go on to accumulate a total of 255 combat missions before flying their last on April 25, 1945, however, Bobs most memorable mission was on April 20, 1944 and it put him out of action for two months. Here are the details.
On that mission to attack Trieste Harbor installations and shipping, about 40 German fighter planes closed in on Bobs bomber formation, ten of the ME-109s at first and the others later, reportedly concentrating their fire on Bobs aircraft. The Nazi fighters made repeated firing passes with aerial rockets, 20 mm cannon and machine guns that badly damaged the B-24 causing it to drop behind in the formation, and attracting still more concentrated attacks as the crippled plane staggered back towards its home base. The top turret and tail turret were completely shot out of the ship. Tail gunner S/Sgt Leslie Stockdale was severely wounded, and left waist gunner, Sgt Grover Jenkins, had wounds to the face and right arm from flying shrapnel, but the bomber continued defensive fires from its workable gun positions. Finally, the Germans broke off their attack leaving the heavily damaged Liberator to limp along unmolested with hydraulic system completely out, wheel brakes and landing flaps unworkable and with the rudder control cables severed. It was later estimated that were more than a thousand holes of all sizes blown through the cabin, the wings and other parts of the plane and the hydraulic fluid, sloshing around in the bomb bay had caught fire but was extinguished by the crew.
The engineer, T/Sgt Abe Aziz spliced the rudder cables back together with a bit of string restoring a degree of control but could do nothing further. Without the severely wounded gunner on board, Bob would have unhesitatingly given the order to abandon ship, but his decision was to bring the plane in to home base, without flaps, without brakes, and almost rudderless. The big Liberator touched down on the runway at well over 100 miles an hour, rolled the length of the runway, kept rolling 300 yards beyond, then plunged down a 50-foot embankment and crashed into a gasoline trailer. The trailer was carried an additional 100 feet before the plane came to a stop. A raging fire immediately broke out and spread rapidly.
All of the crew managed to get clear of the wreckage except for pilot, Bob Cook, who was pinned down at his controls. The co-pilot helped evacuate navigator, 2nd Lt David Woodlock, who was dazed from the crash. S/Sgt Henry Paris, ball turret gunner, whose left foot was broken in three places, helped critically injured Stockdale, the tail gunner, from the wreck. The right waist gunner, slightly wounded S/Sgt Ralph Friese and the other members of the crew made their way through a hatch way that had been opened by Sgt Brewer, radio operator, just before the landing.
Meanwhile, back in the plane, pilot Bob Cook was still trapped in the cockpit and flames were leaping around him. Ammunition was exploding in the burning plane and there was imminent danger that the gas tanks would explode. The navigator, Lt. Woodlock attempted to help Bob, whose flak suit was already aflame, but still dazed from the crash, could not get him out by himself. At this point an ambulance had arrived and Captain Harold Schuknecht, flight surgeon, without hesitation climbed up to pull Bob out. By this time the fuselage was enveloped in flames and fire was spurting out of the waist window and the cockpit, but Schuknecht grabbed Cook and yanked him out through the cockpit window. The flight surgeon and the navigator dragged him away from the wreck, rolled him on the ground and smothered the flames from his flight suit. A minute after they had gotten safely away, the gasoline tanks exploded, and there was little left of either the plane or the trailer.
Bob later said, I had one hand pinned around the control wheel at the impact, and part of the instrument panel had jammed forward, hampering movement of the arm. Both legs were wrapped under the seat which had gone forward and I could not move them. The fire was getting hot and I was getting desperate. I figured it would be better to injure my hand than burn to death so I gave my hand a good jerk. It came clear but the jagged metal tore huge gashes in my flesh. I struggled to get my feet clear, but it was no soap. My clothes were on fire but I only felt the heat and not the flame. My flak suit was absorbing most of the punishment. It was Captain Schuknechts help that freed me.
Lt. Robert Cook was hospitalized for treatment of his injuries and burns, and then was put on ground duty until June 10th before being cleared to go back on flight status. While he was waiting, some of his buddies asked him if maybe he really didnt want to go back to flying again, to which he replied, I love flying, it isnt me that doesnt want to fly, its those Germans that dont want me to fly.
Bob was promoted to Captain, and in a ceremony in the 743rd Squadrons officers club, the bomb group commander, Colonel Kenneth Cool, presented his award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as pilot of a B-24 type aircraft.
Shortly afterward, in September 1944, he returned to the United States for 30 days R&R which he spent at Miami Beach. He then was reassigned to the Army Air Field at Fort Worth, Texas. Following that, he had subsequent assignments at Selmon Field, Alabama, and at Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, Texas. His last posting was to the Air Inspection Department at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he was discharged on November 26, 1945.
Postwar, in civilian life Robert pursued a career in investment banking, but he remained in the reserves and retired in the grade of Major from the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1961. He retired in 1984 from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration. He has been a life member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart for ten years and this month, Texas Capital Chapter 1919 proudly salutes Patriot Robert L. Cook.