Memorial Day inspiration: Vets remember fallen comrades

Memorial Day memories from three war vets
Published: May. 29, 2023 at 6:27 AM EDT
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(WWNY) - World War II veteran Paul Cook turned 99 years old on Sunday. Many years have passed since he was a teenager in Watertown being drafted into the U.S. Army.

“The government said, ‘you’re number such-and-such, and you’re going into the Army,’” Cook said.

He was placed in the famous 299th Combat Engineer Battalion, known as the battalion that arrived to Normandy on D-Day.

“There were four companies in our battalion,” Cook said. “Companies A, B, and C, and Headquarters & Service Company. And I was Headquarters and Service because they figured I had experience with pencil and paper and checking things off.”

His clerical skills saved him. The HQ company stayed in England. Most of his comrades did not return from the beaches.

“We lost, I think they said 60% of our unit, were lost on the beaches of France,” he said.

That was June 6, 1944. The aftermath of the day paved the way for the liberation of thousands of Jewish prisoners. Something one young soldier, Gerald Eaton didn’t realize he would be a part of.

“Dachau was — they didn’t know we were going to run into the camp,” he said.

Fresh out of the Battle of the Bulge, Eaton liberated the Dachau concentration camp with the 242nd regiment.

“You got no idea that people can use people worse than animals,” he said. “They were piled like cord wood in those cars. It was just terrible.

He says he still has flashbacks and nightmares of the war. Recently, when a barn caught fire in Lowville while he was driving past, he was overcome.

“That smell of them dead animals, and the burning of them, that brought Dachau right back to me, mentally,” Eaton said.

“I seen a lot of buddies get killed,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m here, but I’m here.”

“Why am I here” is a question that Korean War veteran Charles Lake asks himself, too. His outfit was the first to go to Korea when the war broke out, because they were already stationed in Japan.

“We were unprepared and we lost a lot of good men,” he said, “and I think about that every day.”

He nearly lost his life, too.

“They caught us in an ambush,” Lake said. “I was on a tank firing a 50-caliber machine gun doing my damage and my tank got hit. It blew me off. And I can remember hollering to my mother. I was shot three times, bayonetted, blew off from a tank, and here I am today.”

He spent 15 months in the hospital, locked in with memories of burying 690 of his comrades in mattress covers. He became 100% disabled and battled PTSD.

“I eventually fought it off, but I still have memories today. it never goes away, because of them 690 men I had to help. I remember it right to today. The chaplain told me back then that I would always remember, and I don’t have any emotions left. I break down a lot.

These men say Memorial Day isn’t about them, it’s about the 700 men Lake buried. Or the 60% of Cook’s battalion who died on D-Day. Or the comrades who fought alongside Eaton at the Battle of the Bulge but never got to see the results of liberation.