My cousin John Cook, always known as Jack, was killed a few kilometres from Caen on August 26, 1944, a little more than two months after D-Day. He was 22 ,a year older than I and a great childhood friend. In late September 1976 I visited his grave in Normandy and on Sunday, October 3, 1976, the then Daily Colonist published my story of that visit.
I thought the 70th anniversary of D-Day might be a good time to recall few excerpts by way of remembering the friendship and sacrifice of my friend – and all the other “Jacks” who died liberating Europe.
“I remember the last time I stood this close to him.
“ I was 14 or 15 years old, he was a year and a bit older. We were cousins, lived a few blocks from each other and got into what our parents thought at the time a more than fair share of trouble.
“They never did fully understand how the two of us could finish up fighting each other in the fifth fight of a five round youth boxing contest. I had won four fights, Jack by lucky earlier draws, was fighting his first.
“He knocked me down twice in the first round – and out in the Fifth. Not just out, but out of the ring too. He worried about me …and then solicitously walked me home to sort of apologize to my mother, his mothers’ sister.
“On this bright Normandy day, four kilometers west of Lisieux on the road to Caen, it is all I can think about.
“ The birds are singing whatever it is French birds sing. A soft wind from the coast touches the low trees and shrubs. There are rows and rows of white crosses and red roses in full bloom.
“One cross of the 598 in this cemetery reads: “Sapper J.Cook, 5127714. Royal Engineers, Aug, 26, 1944. Age 22” with a promise that his “mam and dad” and “his wife” will remember him.
(Readers with ties in the English Midlands or Northern counties will know that “mam” is not a typographical error)
“When I read the simple message there’s a flash of guilt because I never knew Jack, boyhood friend, son of my Uncle Fletcher and Aunt Lucy Cook, had married. I felt I should have, that maybe I could have helped in some way…..
“I think it isn’t much of a way to say ‘thank you’ for old friendships spun apart by war, to just place a simple spray of fresh flowers on his grave. But it is important that I do. Important, too, that I walk along these lonely rows of crosses to pay tribute to the comrades who lie with him.
“Young men from the Black Watch, the Seaforths,the Royal Scots, the Fusiliers, the Royal Tank Regiment – and 16 airmen from the Royal Canadian Air Force. I scribble the names of just a few: Warrant Officer Frank George Bell, New Westminster, air gunner, 22; Pilot Russ Ellsmere, North Bay, 22; John Harrison, Winnipeg, navigator, 28; Ernest Hayworth, Edmonton, navigator, 19; Norman Johnston, Vancouver, radio operator, with no age given but June 3, 1944, the day of his death, three days before D-Day.
“The War Graves Cemetery at St. Desir is one of the small ones dotting Normandy’s coast and plains. Just down the country lane from here there’s another, not much larger in acreage but the final resting place of close to 4,000 German dead. The crosses here are of dull red sandstone. The message they carry as grim as the surroundings.
“One starkly states that beneath it lie 13 unknown German soldiers; another 10, another six, many five and none that I can see with less than four. Some carry names and ages and the ages run between 18 and 24.
“The date on the vast majority – August, 1944 – the other side of the Battle for Caen and the Plains of Normandy.
“It had been part of my pilgrimage plan to visit cousin Jack then continue on to the coast to stay the night at Pourville-sur-mer, a bloody cock-stride from Dieppe. Instead I drive a few kilometers to the tiny village of Beaumont-en-Auge.
“It is quiet there, sleeping as it has slept since William the Conqueror’s time. In the early afternoon the sun has gone and fields lie hung with mist. The evening is very still as it should be when a man needs to wander away from the battlefields of France.”
A few words have been changed in this updated reprise of a 38-year old column. But not many, as I again remember D-Day and my teenage friend and caring cousin with the vicious hay-maker, one of the millions whose longest day ended in some corner of a foreign field.