It was a Saturday night in April and members of a Whitesburg High School organization known as the Girl Reserves were busy with a banquet they sponsored yearly to honor the school’s football and basketball players. As the girls and their guests sat in the basement of the Whitesburg Presbyterian Church for a dinner of meatloaf, potatoes, hot biscuits and coleslaw, Reserves President Judy Craft asked the attendees to remember WHS graduate Ted Cook.
Cook, a 22-year-old supply sergeant in the U.S. Army, hadn’t been heard from since he was transferred to the Philippines late the previous November, about two weeks before the United States officially entered World War II.
Miss Craft’s words, spoken on April 4, 1942, were “so well chosen and sincere they brought tears to the eyes of everyone,” The Mountain Eagle reported six days later. “She told the audience that as she sat there she had been looking at the trophy which was won by the football team of 1938 and she recalled that this handsome trophy was received by Sgt. Ted Cook. After a minute of silence the entire assembly burst into resounding applause.”
Nearly a year after the banquet, Cook’s possible whereabouts became known when his parents, Floyd and Ella Richardson Cook, received a telegram from the Army Adjutant General’s office informing them their son may have been taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese government. The message was dated March 25, 1943.
What no one would know for certain until after World War II formally ended was that Cook had indeed been captured on April 9, 1942, just five days after his service was honored at the WHS banquet. He was taken prisoner with about 63,000 Filipino soldiers and 12,000 American soldiers after they were forced to surrender after three months of fighting on the Bataan Peninsula to keep the Japanese from capturing the Philippines.
The story of Sgt. Cook, a native of the community of Democrat in Letcher County, is being revisited in the wake of his death about two weeks ago in a veterans center in the central Kentucky town of Wilmore. Cook was 93 when he died on March 28, and had been one of the few remaining survivors of the World War II atrocity that became known as the Bataan Death March.
The six-day, 78.9-mile “death march” from the southern tip of Bataan to POW camps to the north began on the same day Cook and the other troops — including at least three other soldiers from Letcher County — surrendered. Japanese soldiers forced the prisoners to walk through extreme tropical heat with little food or water. Many of the prisoners were already severely malnourished before their capture because Japanese blockades and a Navy decimated by the bombing of Pearl Harbor had prevented the U.S. from getting food and supplies to the Philippines.
The Army says that as many as 50,000 Filipino prisoners and 8,000 American soldiers died as prisoners from the Battle of Bataan. Many died en route to POW camps after being denied food and water. Some were run over by trucks after they fell from being too weak to walk. Others were beheaded, shot, or bayoneted.
Even after the prisoners reached the POW camps, as many as 400 of them continued dying each day, some from torture and malnutrition, others from malaria, dysentery, beriberi and other tropical diseases.
“In Bataan we had eaten, among other things, lizards and monkeys and horse meat,” Pvt. Clarence J. Daniels of McRoberts wrote in a letter to The Eagle in January 1946. “At Cabanatuan [a POW camp] we ate, if we could get them, dogs, cats, snakes, and water buffalo. Our main diet usually consisted of rice and thin watery soup. Lugaw, by the way, is boiled watery rice, and there were plenty of worms and weevils in what we got.”
The first soldier from Letcher County to be released from a Japanese prison camp associated with the Battle of Bataan was Army Air Corps Sgt. James Monroe Combs, whose story was told in the April 12, 1945 edition of The Eagle.
Sgt. Combs, a 1938 graduate of Whitesburg High School, was rescued from Bilibid Prison by American forces on February 4, 1945. While visiting the newspaper’s offices after returning to Letcher County about two months after he was freed, Combs said of his Japanese captors: “None of them treated the Americans like humans. [They] were to a man cruel and brutal.”
“Sgt. Combs said that at one time he got down to weighing only 110 pounds, whereas he normally weighs anywhere from 190 to 195 pounds,” the front-page story said. “When he was liberated he weighed 134 pounds, and since February 4 he has gained 50 pounds.”
(Combs was a son of a former Letcher County sheriff, Jim Combs, who had been killed in an auto accident at Rockhouse a few years earlier.)
Sgt. Cook, also a 1938 graduate of WHS, joined the Army in 1940 and went to the Philippines after being assigned to a tank maintenance unit there before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The first written evidence that his family members and friends were concerned about his safety appeared on the front page of the March 12, 1942 edition of The Eagle. The story mentioned that Cook had last been heard from on November 24, 1941. Aside from Cook’s being mentioned at the WHS banquet that following April, it was nearly another full year before his name would appear in print again. This time a headline on the front page of the April 1, 1943 edition of The Eagle announced “Telegram Brings Sad News” and told of Cook’s parents being notified by telegram of his apparent POW status.
The fourth Letcher County soldier known to have survived captivity after being taken prisoner after the Battle of Bataan was Sgt. Daniel O. Webb of Mayking. Just four months after the Allies surrendered, Webb was among the first group of prisoners crowded into cargo holds of “hell ships” and transported from the Philippines to Japan, where they were forced into slave labor.
The hell ship on which Webb was placed, the Tottori Maru, left the Philippines on October 8, 1942. On August 25, 1944, Sgt. Cook and Pvt. Daniels were among 1,035 prisoners placed on the hell ship Noto Maru. Once in Japan, all three men were forced to work under grueling conditions in an enemy steel mill until August 14, 1945, when they were liberated after the Japanese agreed to surrender.
On Sept. 20, 1945, The Eagle reported that Cook’s parents “received word this week that their son, who has been a prisoner of the Japs for more than three years had been liberated and was OK. Whitesburg people were all rejoicing along with the family, as Ted was one of the best loved boys in town. He is a graduate of WHS and was captain of the football team while in school. He also has another brother, Amos Cook, somewhere in the European theatre.”
Cook, Daniels and Webb were finally returned to the U.S. in October 1945 aboard a ship that landed in San Francisco.
The October 14, 1947 edition of The Eagle carried the news that both Sgt. Cook and Sgt. Webb were among the surviving war prisoners cited in formal charges against Captain Keigi Nagahara, who was convicted of war crimes for his treatment of the Bataan prisoners after they arrived in Japan.
Known as the “One Armed Bandit” because he only had one arm, Nagahara was convicted of charges related to forcing sick prisoners to work and with misappropriating Red Cross supplies. The charges also said Nagahara forced Cook, Webb and others to be held without blankets in freezing-cold cells that were too small to permit them “to lie down, stand up or sit down.”
“The walls had barbed wire around them so that the imprisoned could not even lean against them,” the complaint against Hagahara said.
“All prisoners in the camp were utilized by the Japanese as laborers in two steel plants where the heat from the blast furnaces was unbearable,” the complaint added. “As a punishment for prisoners, guards are said to have forced the men to stand a few feet away from the furnaces facing the intense heat and looking into the blinding light.”
“Beatings usually accompanied this treatment while prisoners were allegedly forced to hold 50-pound wrenches over their heads while facing the furnaces,” the complaint continued. “Severe burns and blisters always resulted from the treatment. One prisoner was rendered blind by the intense light.”
After leaving the Army in 1947, Ted Cook returned to Letcher County and was married at Thornton to Lettie June Craft on August 30, 1948.
After a wedding trip to Canada, Cook enrolled at Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College in Richmond, where in 1953 he was honored for his “superior record.” He was hired later that same year to teach and coach at Lebanon High School.
After Lettie Cook died at age 39 in Cincinnati in September 1960, Ted Cook was hired as supervisor of instruction in the Letcher County School System. In 1961, he became an assistant principal and athletics director at Whitesburg High School and was in charge of Whitesburg city swimming pool that summer.
While here, Cook served on a committee that adopted a new “student report card” that would remain in use for many years to come in Letcher County. In addition to changing the card’s release date from every month to every six weeks, the new card replaced the grade letter “F” with “E” and adopted the word “citizenship” instead of “conduct.”
In 1963, Cook left Letcher County to accept a job as director of adult education with the Kentucky Department of Education, a position he held for 16 years.
Early editions of The Eagle also show that:
• On September 16, 1937, Cook was vying for one of two starting end positions on the Whitesburg High School football team as the Yellowjackets prepared for their season opener against the Van Lear Bank Mules. He won the right end position and helped the Jackets to a 32-0 win over Van Lear in that first game.
• On March 10, 1938, Cook was presented a trophy by Whitesburg Mayor Bill Collins for being named to the All-County basketball team after Whitesburg beat Fleming, 38-23, for the 56th District Championship.
Cook was later married for 52 years to Patsy Back Cook, who survives him. He is also survived by three children, Richard Cook, Jackie Merrifield, and Libby Leedy, all of Lexington.
Clips from available Mountain Eagle pages since our founding in 1908
April 8, 1943
Two coal miners have been killed in separate accidents at Letcher County mines. Henry Niece, 27, died instantly in a mishap at the Belcraft Mine between Sandlick and Whitesburg. He was a son of John Niece of Polly, whose home he will be buried near. John Moore, 32, died in a slate fall at the Carbon Glow Mine. Moore, who is survived by four children and a wife, will be buried in Campton in Wolfe County, his former home. He had only worked in the mine a short time before the accident.
Circuit Court opened Monday (April 5) with Judge R. Monroe Fields asking grand jurors to help address lawlessness in the county. The jury was asked by Judge Fields to help punish those responsible for breaking windows out of the Mayking school, which he said “is one of the worst crimes to be committed because of the attitude behind it.” Judge Fields also called on the jury to vote to outlaw sales of legal liquor if they ever get the opportunity to do so. “The only way to handle it is to vote it out just as our ‘foreparents’ did,” Fields said. “One of the best friends I ever had, a lawyer, was put [in his grave] by drink. Another was a doctor, and even one was a judge. It puts men in their graves.”
At the regular term of county court this week, Dr. B.F. Wright scheduled a prohibition election for Letcher County for May 31, 1943. Judge Wright said there were more than 800 names on the petition for a wet-dry vote, more than the required number to call the election. Letcher County Sheriff Gilbert Polly sent formal notice of the May 31 election three days ago. Polly said polls will be open from 6 a.m. until 4 p.m. Sixty other Kentucky counties have already voted to outlaw liquor sales in similar elections.
In a letter to the editor, Mrs. Armilda Jones writes of her surprise at seeing a letter in the previous week’s edition written by her son, Pvt. Earl Napier, who is serving in the Army in North Africa. Responding to her son, who receives the paper overseas, Mrs. Jones said: “I never lie down on my bed at night until I ask the Lord to bring you back home safe. I [also] think of other mothers and fathers [with sons] over there.”
Residents have been inquiring about the possibility of leasing the idled Letcher County Golf Course at Mayking for use as several small garden plots or one large plot.
“With almost every able-bodied boy in the armed services of our county, Fleming’s football squad will severely feel the effects of the war,” Fleming student Jack Burkich reports at the beginning of spring football practice for the Pirates.
April 9, 1953
Fire of unknown origin destroyed South East Coal Company’s Seco No. 1 tipple last night. The company’s vice-president of operations, V.D. Picklesimer, today estimated damage to the tipple at $50,000. He said the wooden structure was not insured because it was not in operation. The blaze could be seen for many miles, with some people reporting they could see light from the fire all the way to Whitesburg. The Fleming, Jenkins, McRoberts and Whitesburg fire departments responded to the call.
The body of retired physician Dr. Gideon Ison, 72, was returned to Letcher County for burial this week. Ison died after suffering a heart attack while driving through Atlanta. Funeral services were held April 7 at Blackey, where he was buried in the Ison family cemetery. Dr. Ison had been living in Bonita Springs, Florida since poor health forced his retirement. He was a son of Eli and Martha Ritter Ison, pioneer settlers of Letcher County.
The United Mine Workers Welfare and Retirement Fund announced this week the signing of a contract to build hospitals in Whitesburg and nine other communities in Appalachian Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. The hospitals, all located in areas rich with coal, will provide care for disabled, injured or sick coal miners and their families.
Funeral services will be held Saturday for former McRoberts resident John E. Maines, 47, who died in a drowning accident about 6 a.m. Wednesday when the car he was driving went into Dewey Lake near Prestonsburg. Maines, a native of Letcher County, was returning to his home in Detroit when the accident occurred. He had been visiting Cherokee Lake in Tennessee, where he owned property. Craft Funeral Home owner Archie Craft said two men saw the vehicle Maines was driving go into the lake, but were unable to rescue him. Craft and others believe Maines either fell asleep at the wheel or became confused by heavy fog. Maines, former owner of a restaurant and studio in Neon, is survived by his wife and two children.
Letcher County’s only “Washmobile” brand automatic car wash — “designed to give cars a 20-minute bath” — has been installed at Courtesy Service Station located across from the Elinda Ann Drive-In Theatre on Solomon Road in Whitesburg. The station also carries Pure Oil products and is operated by Hubert Hall and Billy Wayne Wright.
Whitesburg attorney Harry M. Caudill has announced his candidacy for the office of state representative in the Democratic Primary to be held August 1. Caudill said his platform includes the repeal of Kentucky’s old-age pension law, which he says is being used to extort from the elderly the “roofs above their heads and the humble inheritance they have prepared for their children.” Caudill is also calling for a minimum teacher’s salary of $2,400 annually and hard-surfacing of all existing state-maintained roads in Letcher County.
The conflict in Korea, which began in 1950, continues nearly three years later as 75 more young Letcher County men have received their orders to report for pre-induction to the armed services on April 14, according to Local Draft Board No. 58.
Two men delivering Betsy Ross bread escaped serious injury April 7 when their bread truck wrecked and went over Whitco Hill near Whitesburg before going into the North Fork of the Kentucky River.
April 11, 1963
Gubernatorial candidate A.B. “Happy” Chandler visited Letcher County. He says if elected he will take the sales tax off food and medicine, increase teachers’ salaries, and complete the Whitesburg-Campton section of the East Kentucky Turnpike.
The Letcher County Board of Education has accepted bids totaling $276,628 for construction of the new eightroom Cowan Elementary School, and an addition to the Eolia School. Bonds will be sold to finance the construction work.
The federal government is offering to pay two-thirds of the cost of a new courthouse in Whitesburg if the county will put up the remaining one-third of construction costs. The county’s share of the cost would be from a $177,000 loan from the federal government, to be repaid at about 3 percent interest over a 40-year period. Letcher County Judge James M. Caudill says a vote by the people of the county will be needed to approve the loan.
President John F. Kennedy has named Undersecretary of Commerce Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. to head a new government committee trying to find solutions to the problems of eastern Kentucky and the rest of Appalachia.
Mrs. Woodford Webb of Premium has been named to the Letcher County Public Library Board by County Judge James M. Caudill. She replaces Columbus Sexton, who resigned recently.
April 12, 1973
Only 75 Letcher County residents are running for public office in the county. Sixty Democrats and 15 Republicans have filed as candidates.
Payments to disabled coal miners and their dependents have increased dramatically since the federal black lung law’s eligibility requirements have been liberalized. In Kentucky, the number of people receiving payments rose from 22,000 receiving $2.7 million a month in June 1972 to 34,000 receiving $4.1 million.
Two hundred and fifty Letcher County residents attended a meeting to discuss a land-use plan being drawn up by the Kentucky River Area Development District. Many voiced their dislike of the plan, which they say in an unjustifiable intrusion in their private lives.
April 14, 1983
Letcher County Superintendent of Schools Jack Burkich says the county is in danger of losing state money appropriated to build the new Whitesburg High School. The state allotted $1.8 million to help build the school, but in the more than two years since the money was granted, the county school board has not been able to agree on or acquire a school site.
Ol’ Pied, a cow owned by Isaac and Vera Mitchell of Kingscreek, gave birth to three female calves. People are “coming in droves” to view the rarity, said Mrs. Mitchell.
Whitesburg High School senior forward Donald McCall has been named the Eastern Kentucky Mountain Conference (EKMC) co-player of the year. McCall is one of nine Letcher County basketball players named to the all-conference squad. Also named to the squad are Terry Livingston, John Combs and Van Wright, all of Jenkins; Robb Stross and Steve Hall, both of Fleming-Neon; and Tim Smith, William Reedy and Mark Bates, all of Whitesburg. County boys’ champion Letcher High School is not a member of EKMC.
April 14, 1993
Despite dramatic gains in the percentage of local residents who have completed high school, Letcher County and the seven other counties in the Kentucky River Area Development District continue to rank the lowest in Kentucky in the percentage of adult citizens who are high school graduates. The percentage of high school graduates in Letcher County is 45.6 percent.
A delegation from the Czech Republic is coming to Whitesburg for a cultural exchange with residents of eastern Kentucky. The group will include representatives of the Center for Experimental Theater from Brno; a Czech environmentalist and a videomaker. They will visit in towns in eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia and take part on a week of events at Appalshop in Whitesburg.
Students from West Whitesburg Elementary School visited the Hands On Museum in Johnson City, Tenn. “A good time was had by all ‘children’ present,” wrote Craft’s Colly correspondent Phyllis Spangler, “although the older ones tired out first.”
Columnist Ike Adams described Fat Cat, a former stray cat who has adopted him and his family. He said, “Unlike most barn cats and strays that I have encountered over the years, Fat Cat was precisely the opposite of timid. He simply perched himself beside the door, turned his head over sideways, looked me in the eye and uttered one long impatient meow! When I bent over to pet him, he hissed and spat.”
April 16, 2003
Privacy rules that took effect Monday for most health plans will cover every health insurance company, hospital, clinic, doctor and pharmacy. The rules, years in the making, prohibit disclosure, without patient permission, of information for reasons unrelated to health care. Violators face civil and criminal penalties that can mean up to $250,000 in fines and 10 years in prison.
Heavy rains caused a rockslide to occur on the road between Thornton and Kona on April 8. State highway workers had the mess cleaned up by April 11.
The investigation into the death of a baby in foster care is continuing. A final autopsy report is expected within the next week to show the exact cause of 2-year-old Dakota Austin Yonts’s death on March 27. Letcher County Coroner John Cornett said preliminary reports ruled the death a homicide, but he declined to say what sort of injuries the child suffered.
Letcher County residents who owe delinquent garbage bills will have until June 1 to make a deal with the county to pay those bills, or the county will attach the delinquent amounts to property taxes. Letcher County Judge/Executive Carroll Smith said county workers tallied the unpaid bills last week and came up with a total of $1.5 million that is owed to the county.
On April 12, 1945
The Eagle reported that Army T/4 Byrd Hogg was in a hospital in London, England, recovering from serious wounds he received while fighting in World War II in the European theatre. Hogg was injured by shrapnel after he and three other soldiers went on the battlefield to recover three rocket bombs. When one of the other soldiers dropped the bomb he was carrying, Hogg was the only one who survived. Hogg went on to finish law school and later served as Letcher County Attorney before serving many years as Letcher Circuit Judge. He died in 1999 at age 77.