The Good Soldier
After years of war, the U.S., British and Soviet-led Allied Powers defeated the enemy in Europe in May of 1945, with the surrender of Germany. In August of 1945, Japan finally stopped fighting and formally surrendered in September after enduring much defeat and devastation, including being attacked by the U.S. with a fierce firebombing campaign and two atomic bombs. Seventy years later, Clayton (“Bill”) Cooke, of Avon, vividly recalls the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and his service as a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army, first as a guard at a secret intelligence base outside of Washington, D.C. and then as a communications technician in the Philippines.
Cooke’s father owned a nightclub called the Sunset Palace on Bantam Lake in Morris, Connecticut. When Cooke was a small boy, just as the Roaring 20s was devolving into the Great Depression, he helped his dad at the club on Saturday nights. The club girls in the 20s were known as “flappers,” and Cooke watched them dance with their friends to live jazz music.
Cooke attended class in a one-room schoolhouse in Morris, and while his fellow students brought lettuce sandwiches for lunch, he packed chicken from the Sunset Palace. People didn’t have much money for food during the Depression, so they ate from their gardens. Cooke traded his chicken sandwiches for the lettuce sandwiches he preferred, and the other children were happy to have something as expensive as chicken to eat.
As the Depression wore on, flamboyant flapper parties grew out of style, and Cooke’s father gave up the roadhouse and moved his family to West Hartford. He took a job with the Railway Express Agency, the FedEx®of its day, and felt fortunate to have decent work.
By late 1941, the weight of the Depression was lifting as the U.S. had begun manufacturing war equipment for England and for the U.S.’s national defense. The battles overseas dominated the news in the U.S. — footage of bombed-out cities was shown in the newsreels at the movies — but war was far from home.
Many Americans consulted their atlas or encyclopedia to locate Pearl Harbor – most had never heard of it. Cooke was astonished by the radio reports of the losses the U.S. endured. He soon learned that most of the U.S. Navy’s fleet was at Pearl Harbor. The U.S. government, struggling diplomatically with Japan and wary of the country’s increased military presence in the Pacific, had stationed most of the U.S. Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor as a show of strength.
Never in a million years did Cooke think that he would end up fighting in the Pacific, but he did. Cooke was 17 years old in 1941, and like many other boys in the U.S., he was about to become a soldier and grow up fast. When he turned 18, he registered with his local draft board, as required by law.
Several months later, Cooke received a letter ordering him to report immediately for Army duty. Three days later he said goodbye to his family. He went to Fort Devens in Massachusetts where he was processed into the Army and given uniforms; his civilian clothes were shipped home, and he headed off to North Carolina for training. Next, Cooke was assigned to work with the Military Police at a top-secret military base outside of Washington D.C.
The U.S. interrogated German prisoners at the base, which was known only as P.O. Box 1142 and was demolished after the war. Information about the base remained classified for decades, and the people who worked there had been sworn to secrecy. As a result, not much is known about P.O. Box 1142. Cooke, who worked as a guard at the prison, is one of the few who can give a first-hand account of it.
|Cooke was transferred out of the intelligence base in late 1944 and trained in communications so that he could serve in the Pacific Theater of the War. In February of 1945, the U.S. began the fight to liberate the Philippines from Japanese occupation. As a part of the campaign in which Pearl Harbor was attacked, Japan had taken over the Philippines, forcing U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the Filipino Army, to retreat to Australia with his some of his forces. This was a terrible defeat for MacArthur, a legendary World War I hero, who, as he retreated, promised, “I shall return,” to free the people of the Philippines from Japanese control. Cooke helped MacArthur keep his famous promise.
The night Cooke arrived in Manila, in April of 1945, he heard the sound of gunshots, and saw the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers on the roads, in buildings and even in an elevator shaft. The Battle of Manila had been fought in February and March of 1945, and the U.S. defeated the Japanese there just before Cooke arrived. With the U.S. victory, the city was declared liberated from Japanese occupation, but it was still very dangerous. The Japanese were no longer officially fighting, but many Japanese snipers hid in the jungle trying to take out U.S. soldiers. Eventually, U.S. troops eliminated all the stray snipers, and the island was safe. A couple of months after Cooke arrived, in August of 1945, the war ended. Cooke served in Manila until February of 1946 to help rebuild the bombed-out island. He returned home much more worldly than the boy who had been reading the funny papers on December 7, 1941.
Cooke has an interesting postscript to his work at P.O. Box 1142. Soon after Cooke left the base, the U.S. had gathered enough intelligence to blast away much of Germany’s U-boat forces in the Atlantic.