Cook Claude Grafton

Lester Cook, second from left, with other Army sergeants.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. VE Day celebrates the triumph of the allies over forces from Nazi Germany in World War II. Accordingly, DMPS invites the entire district community to salute US Army Master Sergeant Lester B. Cook, ret., East High Class of 1940.

Sgt. Cook enlisted in the Iowa National Guard while still in high school. His unit was activated in February of 1941 and in 1942, he was selected as one of the original US Army Rangers, an elite special operations force.

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A page from the 1942 East High yearbook discusses the impact of the war at school.

Out of 2,000+ who volunteered when the first Ranger battalion was assembled, only 533 were chosen to undergo training so realistic and rugged it was conducted under live fire.

“My understanding is that I am the only one of us still alive,” said Sgt. Cook by telephone recently. That status ranks him as the Lone Ranger. “I had no idea what I was getting into when I saw a notice on the bulletin board about the Rangers. I was stationed in Ireland with the 168th Infantry.”

What it turned out he was getting into was a military career that spanned three wars and 26 years. The Scarlet boy from the Eastside of Des Moines became a man who earned Silver Stars, Purple Hearts and, soon it appears, a Congressional Gold Medal for intrepid exploits in faraway battlefields ranging from North Africa and Sicily to Korea and Vietnam.

In the foyer of the main entrance at East is a gallery of plaques honoring alums who served in America’s wars. The WWII memorial lists more than 140 East graduates who were killed in action. No doubt the names include some whose schooldays overlapped with Sgt. Cook’s.

“I assume that’s true, but I’m not sure who,” said Sgt. Cook, 97, who has never seen the memorial even though he returned to Des Moines when he retired from the Army and still lives here. “I’d like to see that sometime.”

By the time VE Day was finally achieved, Sgt. Cook was back at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. He recalls his distinguished service now with the unique mix of matter-of-fact modesty and pride that’s like a birthmark of the Greatest Generation.

“I wasn’t there (in Europe) then, so I don’t remember really celebrating,” he said. “But I sure was glad that it was over.” He’ll have cause for a personal celebration this summer when he’s to be inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Georgia.

“I won’t be there because my wife broke her leg and can’t travel,” he said. “But they said they’ll come and deliver (the award) to me out at Camp Dodge in July.”

Not only that, but there is also legislation making its way through Congress that would decorate all of the WWII Army Rangers. The United States Army Rangers Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act passed the US Senate unanimously in March. Now pending in the House of Representatives, H.R. 5002 should pass later this year, paving the way for a medal presentation to the WWII Rangers or their descendants sometime in 2021.

After his military career, Sgt. Cook began a second less hazardous one as another type of public servant with the US Postal Service that lasted 27 more years.

The motto at East, remember, is For the Service of Humanity.

Silver Stars, Purple Hearts and soon perhaps, a Gold Medal too. We were tempted to ask Sgt. Lester B. Cook what the ‘B’ stands for, but decided upon review of his military resume that his middle name must be Bravery.

Rishi Sharma is the founder of an organization called Heroes of the Second World War that seeks out WWII veterans and records their personal stories. He’s the one who tipped us off about Sgt. Cook.

“Mr. Cook is one of the most amazing men who I have come across ever. He joined the Iowa National Guard while still in high school just because he wanted to make a positive impact in his community,” Sharma said. “I do not believe, though, that he truly understands what an amazing contribution he has made for the world directly because of his service.”

How much he embodies his high school’s motto, in other words.

Sharma thinks a wing of the school should be renamed in the distinguished alum’s honor. Maybe they can at least find room in that foyer war gallery for another plaque, one to permanently recognize the last of an endangered breed and invite the old soldier back to see it hung there.

For the moment, though, please remain seated, Sgt. Cook, while the rest of us stand and salute you.

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