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After 45 years missing in Vietnam, a Garinger grad gets a final service

Hamp Hager, left, with the Garinger Education Foundation prepares to place a paver for Glenn Cook as Cook's sister Jan Bradley, right, watches on Saturday, May 30, 2015 at Garinger High School in Charlotte, NC. Cook grew up on Arnold Drive in Charlotte, NC graduated from Garinger High and the Citadel before joining the Air Force. In 1969 his plane was shot down over South Vietnam. Cook's remains have never been returned and his parents died believing he'd one day come home. He never had a memorial service.
Hamp Hager, left, with the Garinger Education Foundation prepares to place a paver for Glenn Cook as Cook's sister Jan Bradley, right, watches on Saturday, May 30, 2015 at Garinger High School in Charlotte, NC. Cook grew up on Arnold Drive in Charlotte, NC graduated from Garinger High and the Citadel before joining the Air Force. In 1969 his plane was shot down over South Vietnam. Cook's remains have never been returned and his parents died believing he'd one day come home. He never had a memorial service. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Forty five years later, Jan Cook Bradley’s thoughts return to 1969. It’s a Sunday afternoon in late October in the living room of her parents’ Charlotte house. After months of letters and audio tapes from her brother Glenn Cook, an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, they’ve abruptly stopped coming.

Glenn’s in a war and he’s probably too busy to write, her father, Frank Cook, reasons.

As he says it, a black car pulls into the driveway – framed by the picture window. An Air Force officer and chaplain deliver a telegram: Glenn was missing in South Vietnam. Jan, 21 then, absorbs the blow about her 24-year-old brother, then charges at the officer and hits his chest with both fists balled, shouting: “How does the military lose my brother!”

Frank and Eleanor Cook died believing Glenn would return and refused to give him a proper goodbye.

Sunday, Glenn Richard Cook, a graduate of Garinger High (class of 1963) and The Citadel (’67), will get the memorial service he never got at Sunset Memory Gardens in Mint Hill, where last December the Veterans Administration installed a marker near his parents’ graves.

Jan Bradley will be there. So will dozens of classmates from Garinger and The Citadel and Jim Karr, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Lancaster, Ohio, who was a squadron-mate in Vietnam and had searched the jungle for any sign of Glenn’s plane.

Charlotteans Larry Walker and Don Thompson, both Garinger graduates and veterans, spearheaded the service, explaining it’s what veterans do for veterans.

“For a man to die in battle fighting for his country, to never have any recognition is wrong,” said Walker, a former Marine who served in Vietnam.

“He never had a service, he never even had an obit,” said Thompson, a crew member on a C-130 hospital evacuation plane that flew the wounded. “That just cuts us to the core of everything we believe in.”

Last week, an obit about Glenn ran in the Observer after 45 years. Now they’re expecting hundreds at his service with full military honors.

‘Spit-shine clean’

From all appearances, Glenn Cook was the all-American kid, riding bikes in the Merry Oaks neighborhood with his buddies until they were old enough to drive. He found mischief – but nothing ever bad – and smoked and drank a little beer as they chased girls.

What set him apart: He was wired for the military.

“Glenn was spit-shine clean,” said Jan, who lives in Ocala, Fla. “His shoes were always polished, his clothes always had to be pressed – every crease had to be just right.”

Ray Bouley of Charlotte, a close friend at Garinger, said Glenn organized clothes in his closet according to color and lined up his gleaming shoes under his bed. Bouley spent many nights at the Cooks and he’d try to tick him off by mixing Glenn’s red shirts with yellow ones and turning his shoes sideways.

“Glenn was a wrestler at Garinger and he’d get me in one of his holds and threaten: ‘You don’t stop messing with my stuff I’ll hurt you,’” Bouley said.

Mike Fitzpatrick, who grew up close to the Cooks on Arnold Drive, recalled mentioning to Glenn that shining his shoes to their luster must have taken a lot of work. “Glenn said with the confidence and authority that he always exuded, ‘Mike, a pair of shined shoes is the mark of a well-dressed man,’” said Fitzpatrick, of Nashville, Tenn.

Even as a boy, Glenn kept his calm – always unflappable under stress.

During a hard freeze one winter, Glenn and three friends wandered to a nearby pond to play hockey on the ice that had formed, his sister said. One friend fell in, and Glenn and another boy crawled to pull him out.

“The ice broke and they all fell in,” Jan said. “My brother pulled them all to the side, built a fire – and then ran for help. If not for Glenn keeping his cool, that could have been a big disaster.”

‘Straight and narrow’

No one was surprised when Glenn chose The Citadel for college, though his only connection to the military was an uncle in the Army and his father served in World War II in the Navy.

Don Thompson was a year behind at Garinger, but had classes with Glenn. “He was squared away before squared away was cool,” Thompson said. “If ever there was a guy destined to do well in the military, it was Glenn.”

Assigned to K company, he instantly devoured the regimented life – particularly as a member of Air Force ROTC and the Summerall Guards, a silent drill platoon.

Rick Van Vleet, a friend and classmate, said Glenn was “a perfect cadet.” He was soft-spoken, respectful, creased and polished – and quickly climbed the ranks.

“When you go through something like that for four years, what you remember are the guys always in trouble or creating trouble,” said Van Vleet, ]a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Chesnee, S.C. “Glenn was always straight and narrow.”

Near the end of college, Glenn had a girlfriend from Charlotte and on breaks, he’d drive home to see her.

Graduating in 1967, Glenn was immediately commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force and after a year in flight school, he was off to Vietnam. Soon after arriving, he got word that his girlfriend was pregnant. He flew home to Charlotte, married her and flew back to Vietnam.

There he was assigned to the 7th Air Force’s 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron, a unit of pilots who flew small Cessna Skymasters “low and slow” over the jungle looking for concentration of North Vietnamese troops. Finding them, they’d radio coordinates to fighter pilots.

It was dangerous duty. “They were unarmed, unarmored vulnerable spotter planes,” Larry Walker said. “Anybody with a small arms could shoot them down.”

On Oct. 21, 1969, Glenn took off from Cam Rahn Bay Air Base in South Vietnam with a fighter pilot named John Espenshied flying observation.

They never returned.

Three months later, Glenn Richard Cook Jr. was born.

Always held out hope

For days, Jim Karr and others flew over the jungle searching for “Cookie” and Espenshied. “The triple canopy of that jungle made it impossible to see anything” Karr said.

After a week, they quit. But back in Charlotte, his father Frank called everyone he could think of and paid missionary groups to keep searching.

“He did everything he could to find Glenn,” Jan said. “We were a good family. We had a happy upbringing and a good childhood. But everything changed when Glenn turned up missing. My parents never went anywhere after that.”

Most don’t remember how they heard that Glenn was missing – just how they felt. “Numb,” said Ray Bouley. “But they didn’t say he’d died, so I thought: ‘He’ll turn up.’”

When her parents were alive, Jan suggested many times that they hold a memorial service. They refused. “I think in their hearts, they thought Glenn would come walking through the door,” she said.

In December 1988, remnants of Glenn’s plane were found. Remains of Espenshied were returned, but none for Glenn. By then, Frank had died in 1984 of cancer. Eleanor, who struggled with Alzheimer’s, died in 2010 at 94.

Last August, Walker, Thompson and other Garinger graduates dedicated a memorial at the high school to 15 graduates, including Glenn, who died in Vietnam. Jan attended and told them her brother had never had a memorial service.

Months later, Walker and Thompson were eating lunch. “Larry looked me in the eye and said, ‘You know, we’ve got to give Glenn a memorial service,’” Thompson said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

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Want to go?

The public, particularly veterans, is invited to the Sunday memorial service with full military honors for Glenn Richard Cook. It starts at 2 p.m., Sunset Memory Gardens, 8901 Lawyers Road in Mint Hill. Among those rendering military honors will be a color guard from Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C. They will fold an American flag and hand it to retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Van Vleet – who will present it to Cook’s sister, Jan Bradley.

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