It is estimated that 15 million soldiers died during the Second World War — 416,800 from the United States, according to one source.
It’s no wonder my family history contains the stories of so many cousins who were casualties of World War II. They were aviators, seamen, infantrymen — all with family members who treasured their memories and passed down stories of their heroism. I will tell you about a few of them. Because of his service in both World Wars, it is appropriate to begin with Harvey Weir Cook.
Harvey Weir Cook (they called him called “Weir”) was my sixth cousin once removed, born on June 30, 1892, in Wilkinson, Indiana, son of a physician and one of seven children. After high school, Weir attended DePauw University in Indiana, and he had enrolled in Washington and Jefferson University in Washington, Pennsylvania, when the First World War broke out. He withdrew from school, went to France and enlisted in the French Army as an ambulance driver. After America’s declaration of war, he transferred to the U.S. Army Air Service and became a member of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker’s Hat-in-the-Ring (94th) squadron, where his record ranked him as one of the leading United States aces in that war.
Capt..Cook was credited with seven victories, including four enemy balloons, and twice received presidential commendations. On August 1, 1918, the President of the United States announced his pleasure “in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Captain (Air Service) Harvey Weir Cook, United States Army Air Service, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with 94th Aero Squadron, 1st Pursuit Group, U.S. Army Air Service, A.E.F., near Bois-de-Dole, France, 1 August 1918. Sighting six enemy mono-place planes at an altitude of 3, 500 meters, Captain Cook, attacked them despite their numerical superiority, shooting down one and driving off the others.”
On October 30, 1918, the announcement read: “The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a Second Award of the Distinguished Service Cross to Captain (Air Service) Harvey Weir Cook, United States Army Air Service, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with 94th Aero Squadron, 1st Pursuit Group, U.S. Army Air Service, A.E.F., near Crepion, France, 30 October 1918. Captain Cook attacked three enemy bi-place planes at an altitude of 1, 000 meters. After a few minutes of severe fighting his guns jammed, but after clearing the jam he returned to the attack, shot down one of his adversaries in flames, and forced the other two to retire to their own lines.”
When the war ended, Weir married Katherine V. Kintz; over the years, they had three children together. Weir’s interest in aviation continued and is apparent in his post-WWI accomplishments. He was assigned as Army instructor attached to the 113th observation squadron of the Indiana National Guard and became one of the first air mail pilots in the United States, while the army was operating the air mail service.
In 1928 he resigned his commission as captain to become vice-president and general manager of the Curtiss Flying Service of Indiana, an organization which he helped form for the purpose of providing civilian pilot training and airplane taxi service. In 1929, Cook assisted in the selection of the site for the Indianapolis Airport, helping to bring concrete runways and electrical lighting to the airport.
In the 1930s Cook had his own radio program on WLW out of Cincinnati, called “Col. Cook and His Flying Corps,” on which he taught about aviation and told stories from his days as a World War I Ace. He was also active in promotion of a model airplane program used by the Army Air Force in pilot training. He called the show “Conquest of the Sky,” and it was viewed by thousands. Cook was one of the earliest advocates of commercial airplane transportation, prophesying transcontinental air lines which would have “sleeper ships” operating through the skies at night. Charles Lindbergh and Roscoe Turner agreed that Weir Cook was “the single most influential man in aviation before WWII.”
In 1941, he became Commander of the 38th Division of the National Guard. When the Guard was mobilized in January 1941, he re-entered the service as a Lieutenant Colonel and reported to Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He was almost 50 years old, but you know what he wanted to do . . . he wanted to be fighting from the skies. But after a short time at Camp Shelby, Lt. Col. Cook was transferred to Wright Field at Dayton, Ohio, where he was assistant to the air forces procurement officer of the central region. Subsequently, he was stationed at Lambert Field, St. Louis, Mo., and at Drew Field, Tampa, Fla. He was in Tampa when he received his overseas orders. He had been eager to return to the field of combat service . . . the Ace was ready!
In July 1942, Weir was promoted to the rank of full Colonel. He visited his family in Indianapolis in August 1942 for the last time before sailing from San Francisco on Sept. 1. He was given command of several airfields on one of the islands of the South Pacific.
On March 28, 1943, Katherine Cook received a telegram from the War Department informing her that her husband had been killed in an airplane accident on March 24. Few details were given, but later Weir’s son said that Col. Cook had left his base piloting a P-39 Bell corporation Airo-Cobra plane, with the mission of bombing a reported submarine in the South Pacific. The cloudy weather conditions were said to be responsible for the crash, causing Col. Cook to misjudge the side of a mountain on New Caledonia Island and crash to his death. (Other reports said that he had been in a Curtiss P-40.)
The Indianapolis Star of April 5, 1943, reported on the service held in honor of Col. Weir Cook by the American Legion and the Forty and Eight in the Indiana World War Memorial. Speed flier Roscoe Turner said, “Behind roaring motors, up where the clouds float, he blazed the trail of America’s conquest of the skyways. He was the type of American whom we all idolize–a fighter, a pioneer and a leader.” A special telegraphic tribute by Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker was read: “The news of the untimely ending of my old friend and comrade, Col. Weir Cook, came as a distinct shock, as over a period of 25 years I have learned to know Weir Cook as one of our outstanding pilots in World War I, a servant to his country during the intervening years, and a patriot in World War II. He was the type of man that both men and women loved and respected. His outstanding contribution as a combat pilot in World War I qualified him admirably for service in World War II. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of being with him a few hours on a lonely Pacific island during my recent mission to the Pacific. There I found him working day and night in a commanding position, helping our young pilots and giving them the benefit of his years of experience, all of whom loved and admired him as I did. Certainly all Americans can be proud of his contribution and sacrifice as can his dear mother, wife and children whom he has left behind as loving monuments for the rest of us to revere.”
Col. Cook has a gravestone in the Honolulu National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, where eventually over 13,000 soldiers and sailors who died during World War II were laid to rest.
The airport in Indianapolis was named the Weir Cook Airport in 1944; it was renamed Indianapolis International in 1976, but a statue of Col. Cook was unveiled there on April 2, 2015, so this pioneer aviator and patriot and his contributions have not been forgotten.