November 4, 2002
From POW camp to Hollywood premiere
Military consultant for 'Hart's War' among speakers at LWTC World War II Day
Senior Staff Writer
Retired Colonel Harold E. Cook wasn't prepared for the audience reaction when he spoke at a school program last year.
Just before Veteran's Day, Colonel Cook was invited to talk to students at Lakeridge School on Mercer Island. Accepting, he looked forward to telling a class of 20-30 students about his military service during World War II.
As a special gesture, he planned on treating the whole class to ice cream during his visit. But then his plans took a turn when he learned he would not speak to one class, but to the entire school.
Dismissing the ice cream idea, Cook decided to give the students something more lasting. On the day of the program, he stood before a huge audience describing his experiences as a B-24 Bomber Navigator during WW II. He told them about the day he was shot down during a bombing mission and about his subsequent POW internment. Then he presented his gift, announcing, "I'm giving [my] Purple Heart to the school with a prayer that these kids never get one."
Parents and teachers stood up as applause broke out. The students joined in and cheered. "It was just unreal," recalls Cook, adding that the moment was very emotional for him.
Today, Cook's Purple Heart medal (one of two that he was awarded) hangs with honor in the school's hallway.
This month, Cook will speak at another event celebrating Veteran's Day.
Along with a number of other featured veterans, Cook will talk about his military experiences as part of "World War II Day" at Lake Washington Technical College (LWTC) on Saturday, Nov. 16.
The veterans, speaking at scheduled times, will offer their eyewitness view to history, whether they participated in the Battle of the Bulge or survived the landing at Normandy.
Colonel Cook will speak at 3 p.m. and tell a story that began May 24, 1944. On that day, 19-year-old Cook participated in a sortie of bombers, flying a mission to Weiner Neustadt, Austria, a town 60 miles from Vienna. The 15th Air Force sent the 700 bombers to destroy a plant that manufactured German fighter aircraft. While flying a loud and noisy B-24, Cook recalls seeing incoming aircraft heading toward him without warning.
"We were attacked by 60-plus ME-109 fighters," he says. "My plane was shot down and I lost four of my crew members."
Windows and gun turrets were shattered and one engine was on fire. The order to bail out was given.
Says Cook, "I hit the ground running." He headed for the brush. Then it was quiet. Alone and wounded, he stayed there until it grew dark.
"That night, I struck out," he says. "Several days later, I ran out of food and spotted a farm house and went to the door to ask for food." The farmer had other plans, though, and sent for two local home guard soldiers.
"They had the two largest rifles I'd ever seen," says Cook. He was handed over to SS troopers who delivered him to Gestapo Headquarters. There he endured interrogation.
"I gave my name, rank and serial number," he says. "I'll never forget. I was in a room with no windows and no lights. I heard people and machine gun fire outside. I really thought they were going to kill me."
Instead they put Cook through further interrogation. One of his interrogators offered him a cigarette. "I told him I didn't smoke and he said 'get out of here.'"
Years later Cook wrote what happened next in a published magazine article ... "The next day we boarded a train complete with window bars and armed guards — and without our shoelaces and belts! After a two-day train trip across Germany, we arrived at Stalag Luft III. The camp consisted of the North (British), East, South, and West (American) compounds which by the end of 1944 held over 12,000 Allied Air Force officers. A double 12-foot high barbed wire fence surrounded the camp.
At intervals along the fence were observation towers complete with search lights, machine guns and guards who proved on several occasions they would not hesitate to shoot. ... The barracks were crowded, dismal and cold. ..."
Cook was interned in two POW camps for a year. "Food was quite limited," he says. "I lost about 60 pounds." As the war drew to a close, he escaped while on a forced march from Nurnberg and managed to reach Switzerland.
It never occurred to him back then that a Hollywood producer would one day use his POW experience for a MGM movie.
Nevertheless, producer David Ladd and director Greg Hoblit had heard of him through mutual friends and hired him as a military consultant for the movie "Hart's War."
The movie premiered in February 2002. "I made a number of changes in their script and I helped with the interrogation scenes and military formations," he says. Cook provided true-to-life details, such as suggesting that soldiers jumping from boxcars after a six-day ride would fall down from weakness. "Also, I made a lot of uniform changes," he says. Many other details in the movie reflect Cook's own experience. In the movie, officers attempt an escape through an underground tunnel. Cook verifies that there was an actual tunnel at his camp in which 76 British and Commonwealth officers escaped.
"Fifty of the officers were shot arbitrarily. Three prisoners actually escaped and returned home," he says, adding that the incident occurred before he arrived at the camp.
The DVD version of the movie, now out in stores, has an introductory segment where the writer and director mention Cook.
"They say I was the mascot in the making of the movie." In addition, he says his involvement with "Hart's War" was a great experience. He not only enjoyed the creative process, but also having a taste of Hollywood life—traveling first-class to movie locations in Prague, riding a limousine to the movie's premiere and receiving a copy of the movie script personally inscribed, including comments from Bruce Willis: "Thanks for keeping us real."
Col. Cook would like younger generations to know that his generation, also known as the Greatest Generation, served their country with duty and honor.
"Most of us were products of the Depression," he says. "Everyone wanted to serve and we did our duty without thinking of heroism. It was a privilege to serve this country and I'd do it again."
The public can hear more of Cook's story and the stories of other veteran's, plus view exhibits of military uniforms and equipment on World War II Day Saturday, Nov. 16, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the LWTC West Building Auditorium, Rm. W404. There is no charge.