Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Naval Hero From Arkansas

Today is the birthday of Admiral Charles Maynard "Savvy" Cooke, Jr.

Admiral Cooke was born in Fort Smith on 19 December, 1886. He graduated from the University of Arkansas in only two years while also working full time on local road repair crews.

He entered the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, where he graduated second in the Class of 1910, earning the nickname "Savvy". According to his classmates, the nickname reflected Midshipman Cooke's common sense and practicality as much as his academic billiance.

As was the tradition of the day, he was not immediately commissioned, but instead served on various ships, including the battleships USS Connecticut, USS Maine, and USS Alabama. During this time he met, courted, and married Helena Leslie Temple, the daughter of a prominent family from Philadelphia.

On 17 November, 1913, then Ensign Cooke reported to submarine school, then held in New York Harbor aboard USS Tonopah, an ironclad monitor, long since removed from front line service and pressed into duty as a floating classroom.

Picked for early promotion during his submarine training, Savvy Cooke first reported for duty as the Executive Officer of the submarine K-2. Less than a month later, he became Commanding Officer of USS E-2, after that's submarine's CO was severely injured in an accident. Seawater entered the battery well of E-2 sending deadly chlorine gas throughout the small submarine.

Just a few months after assuming command of E-2, then LT(jg) Cooke was in New York harbor, on the deck of his former school ship Tonopah, when he saw the wake of a passing boat swamp a small canoe. The two teen-aged boys in the canoe were swept overboard, into the frigid waters of the harbor. One boy was trapped under the overturned canoe. Without hesitation, Savvy lept into the water, risking his own life to save both boys.

Savvy's courage would be tested again on 16 January, 1916 when experimental batteries installed aboard E-2 exploded, killing four men outright and injuring ten, one of whom would later succumb to his injuries. At the time of the explosion, Savvy was aboard the nearby submarine tender USS Ozark (the former monitor USS Arkansas). He immediately rushed to his stricken submarine, and led a group of men inside to rescue his injured crewmen, despite the obvious dangers.

Savvy Cooke and his crew were completed absolved of blame in the accident. Despite this, he spent the next two years in shore duty assignments.

In December 1918, a newly promoted LCDR Cooke was assigned to the outfitting of USS R-2, a submarine then still being built. His mother christened R-2 and Savvy became her first CO when she was commissioned on 24 January, 1919.

He repeated the process for the larger submarine S-5. When S-5 sank on 01 September, 1920 while in transit from Boston to Baltimore, Savvy Cooke was able to lead his crew on a successful escape from the sunken submarine.

With her bow stuck in the mud, S-5's after ballast tanks were blown, bringing her stern just above the water. Even though the decks were nearly vertical, and they only had hand tools (their one electric drill failed after a short time), S-5's crew was able to cut a small triangular hole, six inches wide by eight inches tall through the 3/4" thick steel hull. The crew was able to attract the attention of a passing freighter, the steamer Alanthus. With the help of the crew from the Alanthus and another passing ship, the passenger steamer General George W. Goethals, the small hole was enlarged enough to allow every man from S-5's crew to escape.

The plate cut from S-5's hull is on display in the US Navy Museum in the Washington Navy Yard:

(From the book Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five by A.J. Hill)

The straight edge on the right side of the plate is one side of the hole cut by S-5's crew.

Following the S-5 disaster, Savvy Cooke's career continued to advance. He served in a succession of increasingly important assignments, both ashore and at sea, then was assigned as Commanding Officer of the battleship USS Pennsylvania in February, 1941. Captain Cooke had remarried following the tragic death of his first wife. Although his family had usually accompanied him, in 1941 Captain Cooke sent them to California because he believed war was coming.

"Savvy" Cooke was right.

Surviving the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Captain Cooke oversaw the repair of his ship, but was transferred to the Navy's Strategic Planning Division in Washington, DC when Pennsylvania was ready to return to battle. Quickly promoted to Rear Admiral, by 1945 he had been promoted again to Vice Admiral, was head of Strategic Planning for the entire Navy, and was the principal adviser to Admiral King, Chief of Naval Operations.

Savvy Cooke still saw his share of action. He was present at the Normandy Invasion and went ashore at noon on D-Day.

Although he almost certainly would have been an outstanding fleet commander during the war, it was believed that he performed a far more valuable service in his role in Strategic Planning. One of his contemporaries said that of all those unsung heroes who helped win WWII, Savvy Cooke's name "stands out at the top".

After the war, Admiral Cooke spent two years in China, trying unsuccessfully to bolster support for the Chinese Nationalists. He then served as Commander, Seventh Fleet, retiring in early May, 1948.

Admiral Charles M. Cooke, Jr died on 24 December 1970. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

(Sources: Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five by A.J. Hill and the US Naval Historical Center)


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