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Esmond Eugene Cocke, who lives north of Bedford, was living on a 400-acre farm where his father was a share-cropper, raising corn, cattle and pigs, when Uncle Sam sent him a written invitation to participate in World War II.
It was 1943; Cocke was 18.
“They gave me a choice when I went in,” he said. It would be a life-altering decision.
Cocke chose the Army Air Force. He really didn’t know anything about it, but it sounded interesting. After boot camp, the Army trained him in electricity, electronics and telephone work, then shipped him off to the Pacific. The sea voyage from San Francisco to New Caledonia, an island in the Western Pacific, was not pleasant.
“Lord, I thought I was going to die,” said Cocke. “I was seasick every day I was on that boat.”
He also had a certain fear while on the ship. The ship had a mast with a crow’s nest where a lookout was posted and some of the troops were sent up to pull lookout duty.
“I was so afraid they’d send me up in the crow’s nest,” he said.
Fortunately, the seasick young soldier never had to do that.
Cocke said it took them two weeks to get to New Caledonia and land was a welcome sight.
“We hadn’t seen a speck of land since we left Frisco Bay,” he said.
They spent five weeks on New Caledonia before being shipped to their ultimate destinations and Cocke had a lot of free time due to the duty he pulled while there. He was assigned to drive a weapons carrier that was being used to provide transportation to a town near their base. He would drive the “bus” into town in the morning and then back to the base in the evening. The wait in between was free time. This included spending time in the company of a young local lady.
“She could speak English real good, but her friend didn’t,” he recalled.
So, it wasn’t solitary dating. The two young women were always together and there would also be several American soldiers.
His ultimate destination was Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The Japanese were long gone by that time and the fighting had moved west. Henderson Field was in use and Cocke remembers a B-29 making an emergency landing there. The field was short for this large bomber and people weren’t sure if the plane would be able to make a successful landing.
“Everybody stood around to see if he made it,” Cocke recalled. “That was a big plane in its day.”
Cocke said the pilot landed successfully, but it took every bit of the runway for him to do it.
He said that mainly B-24s and C-47s flew out of the field by the time he was there.
“Me and one other guy had to make sure the runway lights worked,” Cocke said, explaining his job. He said the airfield operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
He also worked on telephone lines. The lines were strung from coconut trees and Cocke had to climb the trees to work on them. Power cables were buried and locating and repairing shorts in these could be challenging.
Guadalcanal had been the scene of heavy fighting in 1942, well before Cocke got there, but he recalls men going into the jungle and scavenging the skulls of Japanese soldiers killed in that fighting. Some men hung them in their tents and some officers displayed skulls on their desks.
“I don’t know what they wanted it [the skulls] for,” Cocke said.
Cocke’s living quarters were on Lunga Point. One day a cargo ship named USS Serpens (AK-97) anchored just off shore. Cocke said a number of ships would anchor off shore and cargoes would be transferred to or from them by smaller craft. The Serpens was picking up a load of depth charges, and most of the ship’s Coast Guard crew, along with Army stevedores, were in the process of loading these explosives on Jan. 29, 1945.
Cocke was on guard duty that evening when the Serpens blew up at 11 p.m. The explosion was so powerful that the blast killed a soldier on the beach. Nobody ever discovered what caused the blast, whether somebody made a mistake handling the explosive ordnance or if the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Cocke recalls a Japanese weather reconnaissance aircraft swooping low over the anchored ships that day.
Actually, Cocke doesn’t remember being on guard duty. His memories become fragmentary after the blast and he has suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) after that time. It was only this year that he began receiving therapy for PTSD and he still has nightmares from that event of nearly 70 years ago.
He doesn’t remember if he actually saw the blast but does remember a big explosion. Nobody around him knew what it was and they thought they were under attack. Later he learned that a ship blew up and he thought there were no survivors. There were 198 Coast Guard sailors and 57 Army stevedores on board that night.
It turned out, however, that two men did survive and Cocke made contact with one, a fellow named Kelsie Kemp, a couple of years ago. The men have remained in contact.