Richard Cook looked the part with his short cropped hair, weathered face and ramrod-straight military gait. The old salt would fool no one.
The real giveaway was the navy blue shirt with five rows of campaign ribbons complete with six battle stars on his chest. Underneath, embroidered in gold, it read: U.S. NAVY. Down the left arm of his long-sleeve shirt were the names of seven Vietnam cities. Even more interesting, also embroidered in gold, were four more lines of words in gold that read: “CAN’T TELL YOU.”
After graduating from high school in 1958, Cook joined the Navy. It didn’t make a big hit with his family because his father and his grandfather were Army men.
“When Vietnam started becoming an issue, I was stationed in a garden spot — Santa Monica, Calif. We worked 30 hours a week,” he said. “I terminated that to go to Vietnam in 1967.
“I was assigned to Naval Forces Vietnam headquartered in Saigon. On the approach to the airport near the capital city, the pilot of our civilian airliner came on the intercom and said, ‘Folks, I’ve got to make a real sudden dive so we don’t get shot at.’ I think we dropped 10,000 feet in five seconds.
“It was impressive to see all the armament surrounding the airport when we landed. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into? This is the real thing.’”
Cook was put in logistics. That didn’t sound like too tough an assignment until his commanding officer informed him he would be traveling all over Vietnam. It was his job to make sure the logistical needs provided by the Navy were satisfactory to the Army, the Air Force and the Marines that the Navy was assisting.
During his 12-month tour of duty in Vietnam he traveled everywhere.
Much of his time was spent on swift boats in the “Brown Water Navy” accompanying Navy Seals on assignment. The “Brown Water Navy” operated fast, 50-foot, propulsion-driven, heavily armed boats in the deltas and rivers of Vietnam. Their job was to interdict the flow of enemy arms coming into the country from North Vietnam.
“Right after the Tet Offensive in February 1968, we were going up the Perfume River in the center of Vietnam with a swift boat full of Seals. These guys were crazy. Their idea of R and R was skiing behind a swift boat with the NVA (North Vietnam Army) shooting at ‘em. Right out of ‘Apocalypse Now,’” Cook said. “Even in the height of my youthfulness I couldn’t have made it as a Seal. It’s too strenuous.
“Anyway, up the river we went. We were told we were to meet a Marine unit and provide them with Seal support for another mission the Marines were going on,” he said. “It took us about a day to reach the area where we were suppose to meet up with the Marines.
“We started taking enemy fire from the jungle that came down to the bank on both sides of the river. In some places the jungle was so thick you couldn’t see the enemy 5 feet away,” Cook said. “We probably went through 1,000 rounds of ammunition in about a minute. The NVA were shooting small arms at us — AK-47s and mortars.
“‘That’s it,’ the Seals said. ‘Lock and load. It’s time to play.’ The six or eight Seals split into two teams. Half of them went in the water and headed for the river bank. They went ashore to find out where the enemy was and how many there were,” he said.
“The three Seals that went in did a fantastic job. They told us where the enemy was and their numbers. We called in an air strike and within minutes — it seemed like hours — they were dropping anti-personnel bombs on the NVA. The guys in the planes came within 200 or 300 feet of us with their bombs. They were good, too.”
Because of their encounter with the NVA on the Perfume River that day, the Seals never hooked up with the Marine unit that was waiting for them. Two of the three Seals who went ashore were wounded in the bush during their intelligence-gathering operation.
“During the year I was in Vietnam, my tour went by like three months over here because you were constantly doing something,” he said. “There were good things that went on during that year. The bad guys did good things and the good guys did bad things. I saw villages that were there one second and gone the next second. I saw villagers that helped us.
“We were in the jungle one day and right behind me was an NVA regular with a pistol. The guy on my right whispered, ‘Don’t turn around. There’s an NVA right behind you with a pistol,” he said. “Of course I turned around, and when I did, the NVA soldier pulled the trigger and nothing happened. He was out of ammo.
“I thought, ‘This is my lucky day and your lucky day, too.’ I cold-cocked him with my rifle; I didn’t shoot him. When they interrogated him they found out he was just a regular NVA soldier with no information of any value,” Cook said.
So what about the “I CAN’T TELL YOU” embroidered on his shirt in four gold lines?
“Those were places where we went to next to Vietnam where we weren’t supposed to be in,” he explained. That’s all he said almost 40 years after the fact.
Cook flew out of Vietnam 12 months later just like he flew in. He hadn’t suffered a scratch in battle. By then he had more than 10 years in the Navy. He would spend another 12 years in the service in places such as Hawaii, the Azores and Washington, D.C.
In 1980 he retired after a 22-year Naval career. He moved to St. Petersburg and become a police officer with the Indian Rocks Beach Police Department, a position he held for five years until he and his wife moved to Port Charlotte in 1988. He joined the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office and served as a motorcycle patrolman under Sheriff Glenn Sapp and later Richard Worch.
“To this day I can’t accept the fact that in Vietnam we didn’t get all our people back. I honestly believe there were many good service people left behind. It irks the hell out of me that they probably don’t speak English any longer. They undoubtedly feel their country has given up on them.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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SEALs take issue with my Vietnam war story
Don Moore, Senior Writer
Enough, already! I’ve received a number of negative e-mails from retired SEALs who took issue with my story about Richard Cook of Port Charlotte.
Cook served in the Vietnam War as a Navy logistics officer. At least that’s what his discharge paper indicates. He said his primary job was to make sure that the assistance the Navy gave to the Army, Air Force and Marines was up to snuff.
On at least one occasion, in February 1968, Cook said he took a ride up the Perfume River in central Vietnam in a swiftboat hauling a half-dozen SEALs to a rendezvous with a bunch of Marines. They got into a firefight with the North Vietnamese Army before they reached their destination and the SEALs went into action.
Cook never said he was a SEAL. In fact, he told me he didn’t think he had what it took to be a member of the Navy’s elite force. That comment was in my Sunday story.
Received this e-mail from: “Ty Zellers, BMCS (SEAL), USN Ret. — ‘This guy is a PHONY SEAL!!!!’”
Erasmo “Doc” Riojas, Seal (USN Ret.) quoting my original story, “The real giveaway was the five rows of campaign ribbons complete with six battle stars on his chest. “… embroidered in gold were four more lines that read: ‘CAN’T TELL YOU.’
“All that ’nam war games stuff has been declassified. I can tell you anything you wanna know,” Riojas wrote. “That kid has five rows of ribbons, unbelievable, unless he was on J. F. Kerry’s SWIFT boat.
“No hard feelings, I just thought that you should know there are more ‘wannabe heroes’ out there than there are real ones. I am listed on the U.S. Navy Log at Navy Memorial: http://www.mividaloca.biz.
Kerry L. Ruth, whose father was apparently a SEAL, writes: “In my personal opinion (his) story is dubious. As for skiing behind a ‘Swift boat,’ (it) might have happened . . . I have personally never seen photos or video of such activity.”
Got this e-mail from someone who identifies himself as “firstseal”: “Did you check his DD-214?”
I did and, as I recall, it said Cook was in Vietnam when he said he was working for the Navy in logistics. It said nothing about accompanying a bunch of SEALs up the Perfume River. That seems reasonably understandable since he didn’t receive a commendation for his actions in the shootout with the NVA on that occasion, as far as I know.
“Integrity is telling myself the truth. Honesty is telling the truth to other people,” the First SEAL closes his e-mail to me.
Since we’re baring our souls, I (Don Moore) would like every SEAL in the universe to know I was not one of them. I have been in nobody’s war. Being a private and eventually a private first class in the Army Reserve in 1958 got me a trip to Fort Jackson, S.C., for basic training. I toughed out the rest of my service as a crewman aboard the general’s Q-boat at Fort Eustis, Va., headquarters for a Army transportation.
My MOS was “Brass Cleaner 1st Class.” I have no war tale to tell.