Fifty years ago, Jerris “Jerry” Cook sat in Gloucester High School watching the start of the Vietnam War.
Two years later, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was on his way to Okinawa.
Cook — who would later serve 30 years in the Gloucester Police Department, retiring as a lieutenant — became a sergeant in the Air Force 6994th Security squadron, and worked as a radio analyst aboard aircraft looking for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces during the Vietnam War, where he volunteered to serve in 1964 and flew roughly 14,000 hours in 2012 combat missions during his two years in the war.
His unit flew in converted DC-3s, the oldest aircraft in the sky during the war. He listened over the radio searching for the Morse code communications of the North Vietnamese army. Cook said by finding radio signals his aircraft could find the troops hidden in the jungle and give the American troops an idea of where they were.
”You’d see arc-light bombs or artillery shells (head there),” he said.
While he made it out of the war unscathed, save a few bullet holes in his old aircraft, he lost friends and commanders — and he, of course, was far from alone. The first stepped-up U.S. involvement in Vietnam came in 1962, and the 50-year anniversary of that date is being noted in Veterans Day ceremonies Sunday in Gloucester, around Cape Ann, and around the country.
The ceremonies begin at 9 a.m. at Gloucester High School tomorrow.
“Maybe we can get some closure and go from there,” said Mark Nestor, a Gloucester attorney, Vietnam veteran and longtime veterans’ advocate whose Veterans Day letter on today’s Opinion page notes that he is from the “Vietnam, Class of ‘70.”
”It’s a token, and symbolic,” Nestor said, “but if one guy can tell me (he’s) finally able to say (he’s) a Vietnam veteran because of what’s happened than it’s absolutely worth it.”
Nestor flew helicopters in Vietnam for a year in the country’s central highlands. Almost nothing, Nestor said, is more frightening than landing one through a hole in Vietnam’s dense jungle canopy. Then, he didn’t know what was on the ground floor — or if it would shoot back. He and the soldiers he carried came into the war zone one by one and left the same way. Nestor said soldiers never knew how long they would serve with the guy next to them.
”It was a very lonely war,” Nestor said — and often brought a lonelier return.
Nestor recalls applying for work as a driver when he flew back from Vietnam. His potential employers asked him to provide a urine test based on the premise that many soldiers came back from Vietnam with “drug problems,” he said. With that, he said, he didn’t take the job and walked out. After spending two years in college and a year flying helicopters in a verdant hell, the request was an affront. But that, he said, was how it was back then.
To those who were there, the war can never be forgotten.
Cook told of how the aircraft to which he was assigned was shot down flying low over a bridge in a contested area.
Cook, however, wasn’t on the flight that day; he was in the Philippines doing jungle survival training. While crews had flown over that bridge many times, he said, this time a North Vietnamese soldier was waiting with an anti-aircraft gun. The soldier shot at the plane, and the crew pulled up and threw the aircraft into full climb. He said the crew crashed headlong into a mountain. Seven people, all good guys, he said, died.
“I was scheduled to be on that flight,” Cook recalls.
In 1967, Cook was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for an intelligence mission. His commendation said he was given it for providing complicated and urgent intelligence in a battle near Saigon.
From the air, Cook said he was always very aware of how Army troops and the Marines suffered during the war. There were no battle lines in that war, he said.
“I feel for those guys that were in the rice paddies stepping on mines,:” Cook says now. “I feel for them, even though I was flying and didn’t know any better.”
Cook also recalled how, during his 30 years in the city’s Police Department, he saw a lot of other Gloucester residents who served in Vietnam on the other side of the booking desk. They were men who didn’t find the help he found, and often drifted into a world of substance abuse.
Tomorrow, 50 years after the war started, Cook will be the principal speaker at the city’s Veterans Day ceremonies.
It’s uncharacteristic, he said; he doesn’t usually walk in Veterans Day parades, or really talk about Vietnam.
But if it helps bring other Vietnam veterans out into the open, he said, it’s worth it.
Tomorrow, Cook said, is a day to remember them — and all veterans.
Mark Nestor said he’s believed that Vietnam was a war that the nation often forgot because it wanted to forget it. Yet people have come around recently, he said, and Vietnam veterans are starting to as well.
“The word Vietnam veteran,” Nestor said, “is no longer a dirty word.”
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.