Monday, November 01, 1999

One instant of chaos in Vietnam


Scene frozen in historic 'Life' photo is etched in Elsmere man's mind

BY JOHN JOHNSTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Now 52, Ron Cook was a 19-year-old Navy medic when Larry Burrows took this famous Vietnam War photo.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        A silver-haired man in a gray suit stands in a photo gallery, staring at a stark, brutal image of the Vietnam War.

        “It's not simply a photograph,” he says.

        For 52-year-old Ron Cook of Elsmere, the photo is a window to the past. His past.

        He points to the young soldiers in the picture. Some he knows, others he doesn't. He's unsure of the name of the wounded, mud-splattered Marine on the ground. But he knows the African-American with a bloody bandage around his head is Jeremiah “Gunny” Purdie.

        And he knows the young man on the far left of the frame.

        “That's me,” Mr. Cook says.

        The photo is one of 285 in Requiem — The Vietnam Collection, on display through Nov. 13 at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort. The exhibit is dedicated to the 135 photojournalists killed during the war. It also pays homage to the people in the pictures, their faces now frozen in time.

        Larry Burrows, an Englishman covering the war for Life magazine, shot the photo of Mr. Cook and his comrades. It was taken, Mr. Cook believes, early in the afternoon on Oct. 5, 1966.

        This is the story of that photo, told from Mr. Cook's perspective. To fully understand it, he says, one must backtrack to the last week of September 1966, “probably one of the most traumatic weeks that I had spent in Vietnam.”


        Ron Cook, a 1965 graduate of Covington's Holmes High School, had been in Vietnam about two months. He was a 19-year-old Navy corpsman — a medic — assigned to Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. The Marines called him “Doc.”

        In late September, 3rd Battalion trekked into densely forested Quang Tri Province, just below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Large numbers of enemy soldiers — North Vietnamese Army regulars — were filtering into the province through the DMZ and had fortified their positions in bunkers along rugged trails.

        The Marines began working their way toward two granite peaks that were deemed strategically important: Hill 400 and Hill 484. Even before meeting the North Vietnamese, the Marines battled mosquitoes, malaria, leeches, snake bites and jungle rot.

        On Sept. 27, 1966, Kilo Company began the final push toward Hill 400. Men at the point used machetes to slash through thick brush.

        About 10 a.m., the Marines walked into an ambush.

        “An enemy machine gun opened up and all hell broke loose,” according to an account in Nam: The Vietnam Experience 1965-1975 (Hamlyn Publishing Group; out of print), a book edited by Tim Page and John Pimlott. “Men shouted frantically for more ammo, others screamed for the medics.”

        Says Mr. Cook: “There were Marines lying everywhere, wounded or killed.”

        Billy Laws and Karl Schmidt, were fatally wounded, Mr. Cook says. Another Marine, Joe Bucolo, suffered head injuries that were so severe, Mr. Cook didn't think he would survive. Corpsmen patched him up as best they could.

        The ambush was only the beginning of what would be a hellish few days, Mr. Cook says.

        “Arvel Hall was killed. Chuck Lear lost his right arm and right leg. Stan Beach, our chaplain, was hit and lost his leg.”

        Another Marine, Lance Cpl. Richard Burgess, was wounded, then was captured by the North Vietnamese. He would be a prisoner of war for the next seven years.

        And then there was the helicopter that Mr. Cook had helped load with casualties. He watched it rise from the jungle, then take a hit, probably from an artillery round.

        “It just literally disintegrated in the air,” he says.

        After several days of heavy fighting, 3rd Battalion secured Hill 400 and reached Mutter's Ridge, an area between Hill 400 and Hill 484. Kilo Company, which had endured much of the fiercest fighting, licked its wounds while other units pushed on.

        As the number of casualties dwindled, Doc Cook thought the worst might be over.


        It was Oct. 5, 1966.

        On Mutter's Ridge, engineers had carved out a landing zone for use by medical evacuation helicopters. But something else landed there that morning.

        Exploding shells from U.S. tanks.

        The “friendly fire” killed the company commander, Capt. James J. Carroll, and two others, including Mr. Cook's closest friend in Vietnam, Merlin P. Legaux. Many others were wounded.

        Doc Cook and other corpsmen came to their aid.

        Says Mr. Cook: “I think any corpsman that served in Vietnam will say we were kids taking care of kids. We were put under the most stressful situations. I mean, when you're an 18-year-old kid and they hand you 56 Marines and say, "Here, keep them alive if you can; the ones you can't, we'll just tag and bag and send them home to their mothers,' it's a lot of responsibility for a kid.”

        As the fighting raged in late September and early October, photographer Larry Burrows stayed close to the action.

        “He never got in the way. He never imposed,” Mr. Cook says. “He blended into the background. He was very quiet. That's why they called him "the compassionate photographer.' ”

        Mr. Burrows was there the afternoon of Oct. 5 when gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah “Gunny” Purdie arrived in a safe area. Suffering from head and leg wounds, the career Marine had just earned his third Purple Heart.

        Mr. Burrows held his camera, framing the scene: A wounded Marine sitting in mud, bracing himself with his left arm; Sgt. Purdie, being assisted by two corpsmen; another corpsman, Ron “Doc” Cook, turning to leave.

        That afternoon, the Marines succeeded in taking Hill 484.

        A day later, “We just walked off,” Mr. Cook says, “and left it.”


        Epilogue:

        In December 1966, Mr. Cook earned a Purple Heart when North Vietnamese troops attacked U.S. positions at Con Thien, and a bullet fragment hit him in the throat. The Navy corpsman who came to his aid was his twin brother, Lon, who was assigned to an artillery battery.

        In October 1967, Mr. Cook and his brother returned to the United States.

        Back home, Mr. Cook attended nursing school and then earned a degree in mortuary science. Today the married father of two grown children works as a funeral director for Allison & Rose Funeral Home, and is deputy coroner for Kenton County.

        Photographer Larry Burrows died on Feb. 10, 1971, when his helicopter was shot down over Laos. He was 44.

        Several weeks later, Life ran several of Mr. Burrows' previously unpublished photos, including the one that is the subject of this story. It was reprinted in the October 1999 issue as part of a “Pictures of the Century” package.

        Mr. Cook met Mr. Burrows' son, Russell Burrows, at a Marine reunion in Washington, D.C. in 1989. They keep in touch and were reunited last month at the opening of Requiem in Frankfort.

        That 1989 Marine reunion was noteworthy for another reason. A man, accompanied by his teen-age son, approached Mr. Cook and threw his arms around him. It was Joe Bucolo, the man that Mr. Cook didn't think would survive after the ambush on Hill 400. They hadn't seen each other since that day, 23 years earlier.

        Mr. Cook now stays in contact with Mr. Bucolo and many of the men he served with in Vietnam.

        “At our reunions, we don't sit around and moan about what happened to us. We have a great time. We harass each other and make fun of each other. We laugh at the funny things, and things that might not have been funny back then are hilarious now.

        “After all these years, we still care about one another.”

       



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