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Witness To History

West Linn's Tony Cook looks back on a life with the winds of war and his career with NASA during the golden years of space exploration
by: vern uyetake West Linn’s Tony Cook, with his wife Dianne, reflects on his memories of the second world war and his career with NASA.

As a child in World War II England, Tony Cook's world thundered around him on land and sea.

'I just went along with the flow,' said Cook, who recently moved with his wife Dianne to West Linn.

His earliest memories are of sleeping in a bombshelter built by his father, 'plopped in the backyard' of their Liverpool home.

'It was complete with rusty springs and cots,' Cook said. 'It was up to you to make it habitable.'

But there was no safe haven there for a little boy or for anyone else in Liverpool - 15,000 of its citizens were killed by Nazi bombs from 1939 to 1945. His father, Edward George Cook, served as a pilot with the RAF, but the son was subject to the forces of war. Cook looks back philosophically about this time.

'People live their lives in two segments,' he said. 'In the first segment of life you have no control. You're a child. From then on life goes the way you point it.'

This coming Monday, June 6, is the anniversary of the D Day invasion in 1944, and like so many people it was the day that changed Cook's life, a day in which the history of the world stood in balance.

Cook watched it happen. Along with a group of 'five little English ragamuffins' he watched in awe as the preparations for the greatest invasion force in history took place in an area on the southeast coast of England called 'The Wash,' near the White Cliffs of Dover. There the boys would look out from a plateau over the English Channel.

'Us kids found out about it,' Cook said. 'We would go lie on the grass. There were landing crafts, transportation ships, freighters, so many boats that no water was visible. There were even pleasure crafts, anything that could float. There were tanks, Jeeps, 4 by 4's, fuel tanks, ammo. We were fascinated. We used to lay there for hours, and we would ask, 'When do you think they're going?'

'One day we went and we saw them steaming out of The Wash. You could see France from that location on a clear day.'

Cook and his pals were overwhelmed by the sight, but they were too young to know just what was at stake.

'We did know we were going to be giving Gerry (Germany) what he had been giving us for five years,' Cook said. 'We were going to put an end to it. We had five years of being pummeled. It was payback time.'

D-Day was the beginning of the end of the worst of the war for 8-year-old Tony Cook, but it had been a long time coming. Terror, tragedy and death were the norm in his young life - the Luftwaffe bombing of his grandmother's neighborhood that was so intense that it was left resembling Hiroshima ('or Joplin, Missouri today'), the death of his best friend in a freak gas mask accident, the perilous journey he and his mother took across the Atlantic to join his father in Canada. They started out in flotilla of 200 ships. Due to constant attacks by German U-boats, only 130 made it across.

The crowning misfortune was the death of his mother in Canada shortly after their arrival. The English are known for their 'stiff upper lip' in times of trial, and Tony Cook had to develop one early. But his life of turmoil was far from over.

'Dad had a problem - what do you do with an 8-year-old kid?' Cook said. 'I lived in 20 different places, like farms, homes, military bases and schools.

'Finally, dad gave a porter on the Canadian Pacific Railway some bucks and said, 'Try to get this kid to Halifax,''

The kid made it. From Halifax he went on another perilous convoy and finally wound up in his hometown of Liverpool.

At long last, after another move, his life started to become fun. He and his friends became beneficiaries of the soldiers from all over the British Empire who came flocking to The Wash.

'There were troops from various nations,' Cook said. 'India, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa. There were all of the turbans and accents, and there would be thousands of them wandering around town.

'We were not reluctant to make friends with them. They always had candy. We had none. We were on rations.'

The war had one more bad scare for Cook. His father's Lancaster bomber was hit during a bombing run over Bremen, Germany and then shot down by an anti-aircraft battery as it got too close to a Nazi-held island off the coast of Holland. Edward Cook became a prisoner of war, but his son didn't know that.

'The word 'orphan' passed through my mind,' Cook said. 'But the war ended 17 days later and dad came home.'

Cook's harrowing childhood, the first segment of his life, was coming to an end, and he began starting to take control. The biggest change was coming to America to join his dad in San Jose, Calif., in 1948, and once he got over being the new kid, things got better and better.

'It's a funny thing. Kids don't want to be different,' Cook said. 'On my first day of school in America I was dressed the same way I was on my last day of school in England. Gray flannel slacks, a blue blazer, white shirt, and a school tie. I looked around and all of the other kids were dressed in jeans, T-shirts and tennis shoes.'

There was also his strong Liverpudlian accent.

'I started practicing my R's,' Cook said. 'Eventually, I stopped sounding like the Beatles.'

He went on to prove that an English kid could achieve the American dream. He earned a college degree from San Jose State University. He was lucky in love, meeting the lovely Dianne when she was just a freshman in high school. They eventually married and became parents of a son and daughter. Cook joined the U.S. Air Force, became an aeronautical engineer, and worked for NASA during its golden era, when America was obsessed with the space program.

'I was chief of the largest flight simulation complex in the world,' Cook said. 'I worked with the Apollos, space shuttles, fighters, transports. I had lots of astronaut friends. It was a grand time.

'I realized that if you love what you're doing you'll do well. I loved what I was doing for 34 years.'

The Cooks spent their retirement years in Gainesville, Fla., but their daughter Barbara and her family moved to Portland two years ago, and 'we followed them out here.'

The Cooks arrived in West Linn late last year. Their home is lovely, but things are not yet hunky dory.

'We're having our own climate shock,' Cook said. 'We've been here five months and I haven't gotten warm yet.'

Still, the unsinkable Tony Cook will muddle through somehow.