The First Marine Captured in Vietnam
by Colonel David L. Price (ret.), U.S. Marine Corps. McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C., 2007, softcover $35.
On December 31, 1964, then-Captain Donald Gilbert Cook suffered a leg wound while serving as an observer with a South Vietnamese Marine unit and was taken prisoner near the South Vietnamese village of Binh Gia. Stripped of his boots and immediately removed from the battlefield, he became the first U.S. Marine captured in Vietnam. What followed was a three-year travail that tested his character, his endurance and, most important, his leadership and courage. Throughout it all, he adhered to the Military Code of Conduct, earning the respect of his captors and nine fellow prisoners as they trudged through miles of jungle from camp to camp, suffering the depredation of disease, jungle parasites, torture and poor food.
His courage and sacrifice were finally recognized in 1980 when he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first Marine to earn it for his actions while in captivity. Colonel Cook’s heroism has also been commemorated by the naming of the guided missile destroyer Donald Cook (DDG-75) in his honor. Still, Colonel Cook’s actions and story have remained all but unknown outside his family and a handful of military historians. The First Marine Captured in Vietnam fills that gap in an outstanding fashion.
Marine Corps Colonel Donald L. Price’s book is more than a thorough and compelling biography. It provides a revealing portrait of Cook’s family and friends, those with whom he served, particularly his fellow prisoners of war and even some of his guards, along with the conditions that he endured and his actions as the leading POW. The author interviewed all of Colonel Cook’s surviving fellow POWs, as well as his former commanding officer and, of course, his family. The result is a journey through Cook’s life, including a brief background of his growing up in Brooklyn, his 1929 graduation from St. Xavier High School, his early days in the Marine Corps and his family life. But the book’s primary focus is on Colonel Cook’s three years in captivity and the cast of characters around him. These include Sergeant Harold Bennett, the first American POW executed in Vietnam, and several others who died in captivity; as well as Special Forces Sergeant (later Captain) Isaac Camacho, the first American POW to successfully escape captivity in Vietnam. In many ways, this is at least partially their story as well, since the book’s epilogue describes the survivors as they are today.
The author of this labor of love and tribute is the Marine who preceded Colonel Cook as the observer to the 4th Battalion of Vietnamese Marine Corps that was decimated that day in Binh Gia. Portions of the book are painful and poignant, but most of it is inspiring and compelling. Cook entered Vietnam after serving in the Intelligence and Communications sections of the III Marine Expeditionary Corps staff, and he could have provided a treasure trove of information to his Viet Cong captors. Yet he remained so tight-lipped throughout his incarceration that the Viet Cong didn’t even learn he was a Marine or had a family until nearly three years after his capture.
All who served with Cook in captivity spoke of his quiet, enduring courage and support, both physical and spiritual, to those around him. Even the guards respected him, and one of them expressed the wish that Cook had been released. Unfortunately, higher VC authority denied him freedom because he would neither sign a confession nor write a statement condemning his country.
Colonel Donald G. Cook died, probably from malaria and malnutrition, on or about December 8, 1967, just shy of three years after his capture. As attested in this book and by his fellow prisoners, he spent his life’s final years enduring indescribable hardship and pain. But he never wavered, never broke from the Code of Conduct and, most important of all, never lost faith in his God, his country or his family. A World War II veteran once told this reviewer that courage came in three fashions: the physical, the moral and that required to endure. Of the three, that of endurance in the face of seemingly relentless and infinite hardship is the most difficult to sustain and the one that most people lack. Colonel Cook’s actions mark him as one who had all three forms of courage in abundance. He epitomized the best of America. He was a United States Marine, and Colonel Price has written a fitting tribute to him.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.