KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Even as the United States reeled from the Japanese advance throughout the Pacific in 1942 and the military sought desperately to ramp up the American war machine, it was remarkable that James Cook Sr. was even allowed to enlist.
It took the existential threat of world war for the military to open new roles to African American men, and Cook was in the first wave of Black Marines. Cook started his military journey at Camp Montford Point, a segregated Marine training camp in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and went on to serve in the Pacific Theater.
Growing up, James “Jimmy” Cook Jr., who is now 75 and a Knoxville resident, knew nothing about his father’s storied place in history as one of the Montford Point Marines, who served in all-Black units and distinguished themselves in war.
Now, Jimmy Cook will receive on his father’s behalf the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can award for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions.
The Montford Point Marines were awarded the honor in 2012 after President Barack Obama announced the group distinction in 2011, noting the members’ personal sacrifice during World War II. But Cook Sr. had passed away at 81 in 2005, and it was only recently that Jimmy Cook learned what his father was due.
“You know when I found this out, I knew he had done some amazing things, but that just topped it for me. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’” he said.
Jimmy Cook, himself a retired Army veteran who served in Vietnam, will travel to a ceremony set for Aug. 25 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, during the 57th annual Montford Point Marines Day. Other Montford Marines or their families will be presented the award as well.
It wasn’t until Jimmy Cook was in high school in the early ‘60s that he stumbled upon a trunk in the attic filled with military uniforms and awards. He asked his dad if he was in the Army.
“And he said, ‘No son, I was in the Marines.’ And that was the end of it,” Jimmy recalled.
Jimmy says his dad kept his thoughts and memories of his military service to himself. “The only thing he would say is that he was stationed in the Pacific.”
Then, in 2021, Jimmy was casually talking to a retired Marine who revealed to Jimmy about his father’s forgotten Congressional Gold Medal.
Jimmy began doing online research on Camp Montford Point and requested his father’s military records to verify he was one of the Montford Marines. Reduced staffing due to COVID-19 caused delays in securing the records, but Jimmy’s sister made her own discovery while cleaning out their mom’s garage.
“She gave me this big envelope with all of his records in it and I just about went to tears,” Jimmy recalled.
James Cook Sr. was kind and soft-spoken. But in hindsight, there were glimmers of his military background, Jimmy said, describing his father as a disciplinarian.
“I tell people, by the time I got to basic training in ‘65, I thought it was Girl Scouts compared to dealing with my daddy. But like I said, he was a very patient man,” Jimmy joked.
Living in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife, Earline, and five kids, Cook Sr. worked as an electrician and owned a television and radio repair shop. He was using skills he had learned from the Marines, where he served as a radar operator.
But Jimmy has come to learn more of what his father carried with him after the Marine Corps.
“[The Montford Marines] caught hell because they were the first to integrate. And they stuck them in the back of Parris Island and made them build their own barracks. It was just God awful,” Jimmy said.
As Jimmy has learned more about his father’s experience, his respect for the man has grown even more.
“My chest sticks out a block away. I’m just so proud of him and to know what he endured and went through,” he said.
Jimmy wishes his dad was able to receive the medal himself, but he is honored to accept it on his behalf.