Name, rank, service number, and date of birth. That was the only information Donald Cook ever told his captors. Donald Gilbert Cook. Captain, U.S. Marines. August 9, 1934. Even when he was beaten, even when he was starving, even when he was sick, it was all he’d ever say.
But for his comrades, he did so much more.
Name, rank, service number, and date of birth. That was all Lance Sijan’s torturers ever got from him. Lance Peter Sijan. Lieutenant, U.S. Air Force. April 13, 1942. Even with a fractured skull, a broken leg, a mangled hand, and extreme malnutrition, Lance Sijan would say no more.
But for his country, he showed so much more.
Lance Sijan was 25 years old when his plane exploded over North Vietnam. Although he was able to eject, the force was so violent that Sijan was knocked unconscious. When he awoke, he found himself in enemy territory without food or water. He was able to radio for help, but there were too many North Vietnamese forces in the area. Sijan refused to subject other airmen to a dangerous rescue attempt. So, he informed his superiors of his decision to crawl through the thick jungle, hoping to find a safer spot.
Weakened and dehydrated, with multiple broken bones, Sijan was only able to move by sliding along his backside. Despite this, he evaded capture for six weeks, until finally, he was spotted by the North Vietnamese on Christmas Day. But even in captivity, Sijan’s indomitable will could not be broken. He subjugated one of his guards and escaped back into the jungle, only to be recaptured several hours later.
That’s when the torture began.
Name, rank, service number, and date of birth. Already gaunt and maimed, Sijan was interrogated relentlessly. But he never relented. He never divulged any information about himself, his unit, or his mission. Nor did he ever complain to his comrades. As he began slipping in and out of consciousness, he continued to plan future escape attempts. Most important was the standard he set for the other prisoners. Never give up. Never give in. Keep resisting. Keep fighting. Keep serving.
Finally, a few weeks after being captured, Lance Sijan died from pneumonia. But his example endured on, inspiring other prisoners to persevere – and live.
Later that year, Sijan was posthumously promoted to the rank of captain. In 1976, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his “extraordinary heroism and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty.”1
He was only supposed to be in Vietnam for a training mission. But maybe Donald Cook had a premonition he would be captured one day. Maybe that’s why he prepared for it long before it happened.
Cook joined the marines in 1956. A gifted linguist, Cook taught himself Vietnamese and Chinese and made a point of learning how to conduct himself if he were ever captured and interrogated. He even wrote a pamphlet based on the experiences of American POWs during the Korean War and taught resistance techniques to other marines in case they were ever imprisoned.
In 1964, Cook went to Vietnam for a 30-day assignment. But only 18 days after arriving, Cook found himself embroiled in the Battle of Binh Gia. Wounded and captured by the Viet Cong, his superiors thought he was dead and declared him killed in action.
But Cook was very much alive – and about to put his training to use.
First, Cook established himself as the senior officer among nine other POWs, even though he technically wasn’t, knowing this would cause him to be singled out by his captors for especially brutal attention. As the senior officer, he had the authority to demand better food, medicine, and care, which he did so constantly. Often, this only resulted in harsher treatment for himself, but sometimes, his efforts paid off.
Next, Cook began giving away his food and water rations, not to mention what little medicine he had, to prisoners in worse condition. As the prisoners were forcibly marched from one camp to another, Cook personally carried his comrades' belongings if they were too weak to do so themselves, knowing those same belongings were often what kept the men alive.
As the senior officer, Cook was always first to be interrogated – and first to be punished whenever his fellow POWs resisted. But, drawing on his years of training, Cook never relented. Name, rank, service number, and date of birth. Even when offered the chance to negotiate his own freedom, Cook refused. He would not abandon his post, his duty, his men, or his country.
At one point, his interrogator pushed a pistol against his forehead and threatened to fire. It was probably the only time Cook indulged his captors with a different answer.
“You can’t kill me,” he said. “Only God can decide when I die.”2
His words were prophetic. After over three years in captivity, Cook finally passed away. Not from torture, or starvation, or a Viet Cong bullet, but from malaria. His fellow prisoners, the same men he had inspired, protected, and saved, buried him in the jungle themselves.
Donald Cook was posthumously promoted to colonel and awarded the Medal of Honor “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty…and for personal valor and an exceptional spirit of loyalty in the face of certain death.”3 Fifteen years later, his daughters found a box containing letters he had written to them before leaving for Vietnam.
“Do what is right and just,” he had written, “no matter what the personal cost.”2
Every Memorial Day, we honor those who died defending our country. Usually, we imagine their valor and sacrifice taking place on the front lines, in the heat of battle, and it often did. Defending a hill, liberating a town, mounting a last, desperate charge – these are feats movies are made of.
But when you walk past the white marble headstones of Arlington National Cemetery, when you read their stories, you learn that sacrifice comes in many forms…and the greatest valor often happened where there was no one to see. Some of the finest heroes our country has ever known were nowhere near the front lines when they died. They were in enemy territory. They were shackled and starving. Sometimes, it would be years before their country would know what happened to them. Sometimes, their bodies never even made it home.
They were prisoners of war. They were heroes.
This Memorial Day, let’s remember them. Let’s honor them.
I wish you a safe and peaceful rest of your Memorial Day.