The Death of Peter Brown Cook, Jr.

by Jerry Prater, Jerry Church, Wayne Westenberger,
Michael Dyess, Ralph Ricedorf, and Dallas Owens

written by Jerry Prater

OCTOBER 5-6, 1967 — During the summer and fall months of 1967 the First Platoon of Company A, 1/8 Cav consisted of approximately 25 soldiers.  This included 4 squads of 4 rifleman each, 2 M-60 machine gun crews that included the machine gunner, assistant gunner, and an ammo bearer.  The remaining members included the Platoon Sergeant and his RTO (radio telephone operator), plus the Platoon Leader, which generally was a 2nd Lieutenant, and his RTO.  The roster changed very often because, generally, the tour of duty of at least one soldier would end each month, and they would return home to “The World”.  Also, each soldier who was killed or seriously wounded had to be replaced, as well as anyone who was reassigned to a different unit.  Soldiers who were wounded, but not seriously or permanently, would be treated at a hospital and returned to the platoon when the wound had healed to the point that they could resume their duties.  According to the Daily Staff Journal report dated October 6, 1967, the unit field strength of the four platoons in Company A totaled 102 soldiers, an average of 25 soldiers for each platoon.

Even though there were only 25 soldiers in the platoon, we never really had the opportunity to get to know many of the guys because we were very squad oriented.  The Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant would meet with the squad leaders daily to provide them with pertinent information and the order of march for that day, and/or for the next day.  The squad leaders would then meet with their squad and inform them of the information that had been relayed to them.  Even though we worked as a platoon, each soldier spent the vast majority of their time with the members of his squad because we would stay close together as we carried out our daily operations, and when we set up and pulled guard duty each evening.  Also, when I first joined the platoon in late May, 1967, my squad leader, Sam Witcher who was killed on July 4, told me not to develop friendships with any of the guys because it would affect you too much emotionally if they were killed.  As a result, I spent little time with other guys in the platoon, and I read my Bible, letters from home and western paperback books, or I wrote letters during those occasions when we had sat up for extended times during the day, and before it got dark when we sat up for the evening.

A Company had set up for the evening at 1850 hours on Thursday, October 5 at map coordinates 853077.  The company began moving from this location at 0635 on the morning of October 6 in order to surround a village for the purpose of not allowing anyone to leave.  At 0912 hours, A Company and the 3rd and 4th Platoons of D Company linked up at map coordinates 862070 and formed a cordon around a village.  The South Vietnamese National Police arrived by helicopter at approximately 0915 hours and began to sweep through the village in search of enemy soldiers, as well as food, supplies and weapons that could be used by enemy elements.  During the search, a few male Vietnamese suspects were detained and questioned, and several weapons, as well as pieces of clothing and documents were located.  The National Police completed their search of the village and were extracted by helicopter and returned to LZ English at 1727 hours.

Michael Dyess
Lt. Jerome Church

With the 1st Platoon in the lead, A Company then left the cordon and we made our way to map coordinates 865062, approximately 8 kilometers south-southwest of Tam Quan City, arriving at approximately 1815 hours (6:15 p.m.).  This location was on top of a knoll that had been used previously, and the foxholes that had been dug were still usable and required little to no additional digging.  However, Lieutenant Church told us to be careful and check the foxholes to see if booby traps had been placed in them.  One of the soldiers noticed a trip wire and found a booby trapped hand grenade in one of the foxholes.  One or two additional hand grenades with trip wires attached were discovered by other members of the platoon on other parts of the knoll.  The trip wires were cut so no one would set off the grenades.

   
Jerome Church   Richard Dieterle
Standing: Reynolds, McQuiston, Douglas
Seated: Westenberger, Dyess, Ricedorf
  Jerry Prater, Heath, and Joe Washington

We were then joined by the other three platoons of A Company, and we set up our perimeter for the evening.  Platoon Sergeant Reynolds assigned Heath to a position that gave a good field of fire for the M-60 machine gun.  Since I was Heath’s assistant gunner, he and I dug a shallow trench to provide us with some semblance of protection while we would pull guard duty for the evening.

Patrick Skinner
Lt. Dallas Owens

 While this was going on, a chopper landed, bringing us a hot meal, our mail and our evening logistical items.  The food canisters were unloaded and lined up so each soldier could go single file and get their food.  We were also provided with paper plates, which was very unusual.  The chopper then left our location and returned to LZ English.  Lieutenant Jerome Church and Lieutenant Dallas Owens, the Platoon Leader of the 2nd Platoon, were standing behind the food canisters and would fill their plate after all members of their platoons had eaten.  Heath and I were among the first group to go through the chow line, and I was extremely happy to notice that we were allowed to get one scoop of vanilla ice cream with our meal.  I couldn’t believe it, I loved ice cream and it had been a long time since I had eaten any.  After Heath and I made it through the chow line and were walking back to the area where the M-60 machine gun had been set up, I was looking at my food and debating if I should wait and eat my ice cream as a desert, or if I should eat it first before it melted.  As I sat down I decided to eat my ice cream first before it melted.

At 1834 hours, just as I sat down and was about to put the first spoonful of ice cream in my mouth, I heard a tremendous explosion, and body parts and pieces of clothing began falling on my food, as well as over various parts of my body and the ground where Heath and I were located.  My first instinct was that I had to have my ice cream, so I removed as much of the body parts as I could, then I ate my ice cream, including the body parts and pieces of clothing I didn’t remove.  After I finished the ice cream, I started eating my hot meal, again including several pieces of body parts and clothing.  When I had eaten about half of the hot meal I turned to Heath and said “I wonder who that was.  It may take us a while to determine who is missing so we can identify who just got killed.” 

As the body parts and pieces of clothing were landing on me and my food, Lieutenant Owens heard a big thud then saw something on the ground that didn’t look human.  Instead, it had the appearance of a charred tree trunk.  He then realized that it was the torso, without any arms or legs, of the soldier who had stepped on the land mine.  At the same time, a part of a leg from just below the knee all the way down to, and including the boot on one foot, landed on the edge of the foxhole where Wayne Westenberger was positioned.  Platoon Sergeant Reynolds told Wayne to bring the portion of the leg up to the area where the torso was laying, and for him to be very careful and watch for more trip wires and booby trapped land mines.  Lieutenant Church and Lieutenant Owens  wanted to locate as many of the body parts as possible and brought to where they were standing so they could be wrapped in a poncho and sent back home to his family for burial. All the soldiers who were still in the line to get their hot meal were told to step in the same spot as the soldier in front of them.  All the soldiers who were not already in line were told to stay in place and not move, and that they would not get a hot meal because the threat of another loss of life, or a serious wound, was too great to risk.  We were then informed that, because of the threat of additional land mines and booby traps at our current position, the decision had been made for us to leave the area and move to a different and, hopefully, a more secure location.

It was getting dark and, after all the visible body parts had been retrieved and placed in a poncho, we were told that we would have to carry the poncho with the body parts and the canisters of food with us to our new location.  Helicopters generally would not fly in the dark to pick up logistical items, including bodies of dead soldiers, because the chances of a chopper crashing or being shot down are magnified during darkness.  The landing zone cannot be properly illuminated, which could result in the chopper landing at the wrong location or, worst case scenario, being shot down or crashing into trees or hillsides, or onto the ground.  We saddled up and began moving out very slowly and very carefully in single file.  We were alerted to step in the same spot as the soldier in front of us because we knew that no mine or booby trap was planted at that specific spot. 

“A” Company’s Relocation, 6 October 1967

We continued moving through the foliage and overgrowth in the dark for approximately one kilometer, and we arrived at our destination, map coordinates 876062, at 2211 hours (10:11 p.m.).  Lieutenant Owens determined that our location was less than half a kilometer from the perimeter of LZ English North, a fire base for combat engineers.  He was concerned that the soldiers guarding the LZ would hear us and, believing that we were enemy elements, would fire at us or call in artillery or helicopter gunships to fire onto our location.  He also asked permission for us to be allowed to enter and spend the night inside the LZ, but his request was denied.  At this time we learned that the soldier who was killed in action was Private First Class Peter Brown Cook, Jr., roster number A95.  We also learned that he was killed by a 105 mm. artillery round buried in the ground and booby trapped with a pressure type devise.

Vietnam Wall of Faces
Peter Brown Cook, Jr.

An ambush patrol was sent out, and the rest of us set up our perimeter, dug a shallow foxhole, and set up our guard schedule for the remainder of the evening.  We were all very traumatized because of the explosion, and the way the body parts had been blown over such a wide area.  And, on the other hand, we were also very relieved that only one soldier had stepped on one of the several land mines and booby traps at the previous location, and that no one else was killed or wounded by the explosion.

Private Cook’s start date for his tour of duty was June 28, 1967, approximately one month after my tour began.  Since he was not in my squad, and because he was in country for only three months and one week, I regret that I have very little memory of him during the time he served in my platoon.  However, Ralph Ricedorf was a buddy of Cook, and he called him by his nickname of “Sugar Bear.”

While attending the 2016 Jumping Mustang reunion in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, I was able to locate additional information about Peter Cook.  He was 19 years old when he was killed, just 36 days before his 20th birthday. His home of record was Yazoo City, Mississippi, but his wife Opal was living in an apartment in Salt Lake City, Utah when he was killed.  His parents were apparently separated or divorced because his mother, Ollie C. Cook, remained in Yazoo City, and his father, Peter Brown Cook, Sr., lived in Salt Lake City at the time of his death.  He is buried in Larkin Sunset Gardens Cemetery in Sandy, Utah.  Peter Brown Cook, Jr. was promoted to Corporal posthumously. 

Find a Grave
The Grave of Peter Brown Cook, Jr.

For another view of this incident, see "Blown Up."

Maps

for a map showing the events of Oct. 4-5, 1967, see the Odyssey Map for these dates.

for a map showing the events of Oct. 6, 1967, see the Odyssey Map for this date.

"LZ English" — for a map showing the location of LZ English, see Bồng Sơn, LZ English, LZ Two Bits.

"Tam Quan City" — for a map of Tam Quan, see Bong Son, An Lao, Tam Quan.