Capt. Donald Cook of the Marine Corps was only in Vietnam for 18 days before he was captured by the enemy. What he did next would win him the Medal of Honor and demonstrate the heroic unselfishness of our men and women in uniform.
According to War History Online, Cook is the only man to receive the Medal of Honor for what he did as a prisoner of war. He went above and beyond to make things easier for his fellow POWs and harder for his captors — even though it led to unspeakable punishment from the North Vietnamese.
In spite of being tortured brutally by the North Vietnamese, it was Cook’s policy during his three years in a prison camp to only give the Viet Cong “the big four and nothing more.” That means aside from his name, rank, service number and date of birth, they got nothing more out of him.
That wasn’t all, though. Not by a long shot.
“Despite the fact that by so doing he would bring about harsher treatment for himself, Colonel (then Captain) Cook established himself as the senior prisoner, even though in actuality he was not,” his Medal of Honor citation read.
“Repeatedly assuming more than his share of responsibility for their health, Colonel Cook willingly and unselfishly put the interests of his comrades before that of his own well-being and, eventually, his life.”
One of the 10 other POWs that Cook took responsibility for put it more succinctly: “If Captain Cook thought the Viet Cong were using his feces for fertilizer, he would have stopped crapping.”
In fact, Cook knew a lot more about his captors than they knew about him. Unbeknownst to them, the Marine began picking up snippets of Vietnamese from listening to their conversations. He also tried to lead a prison break, but the other POWs were too weak. When a pistol was placed to his head by a North Vietnamese soldier in the beating that inevitably followed, Cook simply said, “You can’t kill me, only God can decide when I die.”
Sadly, God decided that day was December 8, 1967, when Cook died from malaria. It wasn’t until the Carter administration that he was awarded the Medal of Honor. His body was never found, but a cenotaph in Arlington National Cemetery bears his name.
Thankfully, prisoners of war are rarer in these times than they were back then. If, God forbid, there are ever more prisoners of war, they would do well to conduct themselves in the same incredible manner that Donald Cook did.
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