It’s a 3-minute walk from 1037 Clifton Ave. to Central Collegiate, 290 meters. When Bill Cook showed up at Central Collegiate in the Fall of 1941, he was in Grade 10. On the first day of class, his homeroom had a guest speaker. Here is how the event was described in the yearbook.
Some students who were in Grade 10 with Bill Cook in 1941-42 are pictured below. Bill was elected Class President for the first term and song leader for the second term.
No doubt, his Uncle Ronald’s service in the Great War and more recently his brother Ronald’s RCAF service as a radio operator were already at work in young Bill Cook’s imagination. Now near the end of the 41-42 school year, there are 30 boys joining the Squadron # 40 Air Cadets. Bill was one of them.
Bill continued with the Air Cadets and went to Grade 11 at Central Collegiate for 42-43. He worked part-time doing deliveries for the CPR. He served as best man for his brother Ron’s wedding on Christmas Eve. He probably listened to White Christmas, Bing Crosby’s #1 hit of 1942. His father, Ernest, went to work for the War-time Prices and Trade Board.
Bill was also acquainted with some young women who may have influenced him in his interests in flying. His sister-in-law, Hazel Elizabeth Whitehead Cook (Peggy) worked for a time at Prairie Airways. One of the tenants in the Cook home was Miss Dorothy Renton. “Dorothy was the first woman to obtain a pilot’s license in Saskatchewan, which showed her adventurous spirit.” (from her obituary in 2003).
His mother ran the household and wrote letters, as I imagine, to her oldest son Ron on Active Duty on the east side of the country. Louise was involved in community groups also: she was the regent of Moose Jaw chapter, Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire for two years and was treasurer of the chapter for a number of years. She was an active member of several other women’s organizations, including the Women’s Canadian Club.
Bill continued high school through the 42-43 term. But when summer holidays came in 1943, Bill had other plans that didn’t involve doing his grade 12 at Central Collegiate. He would be saying goodbye to his classmates in the picture below.
William Henry Cook turned 19 on September 18th, 1943. By this time he had made the decision to enlist in the Air Force rather than return to Central Collegiate for Grade 12. He had filled in his Attestation papers on July 30th, listing his employment experience working for Mr. Zimmer at his Boy’s Clothing Store and at a Boy Scout Camp and being a porter for the CPR. His particular activities that might be “useful in the RCAF” were photography and model airplane building. He listed two neighbours on Clifton Avenue as references: Mr. J. Thomson, a druggist from 1043 and Mr. G.H. Broach, a lawyer from 1046. Mr. Zimmer who employed Bill at his Boys Clothing Shop is included along with a lawyer from 2nd Ave. NW, Mr. H.Pope.
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (“The Plan”)
Bill began Aircrew training likely at the Manning Depot at Brandon (which is now a historical site).
“During the Second World War, this building was where new recruits from all over Western Canada, some 1,000 to 1,500 at a time, came for their introduction to military life. The No. 2 Manning Depot, an integral component of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan, hosted classes in precision drills, physical fitness, swimming, sunbathing, as well as general outfitting. At the end of their two- to four-week stint here, the prospective airmen were sorted into three training classes: Pilots, Air Observers, and Air Gunners.” (Manitoba Historical Society)
When I see Louise Cook at her desk writing to her sons, I wonder how she could keep up with all the moving around they did to the locations in Canada where the training was going on. There were 231 sites across Canada where men and women were being trained for different roles in the crews of the air force. At the peak of The Plan in 1943, 3000 aircrew members were being turned out every month. Enlisted in Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, they were studying and drilling and practising in Canada’s open spaces and skies where they were out of reach of the warring invaders in Europe.
The Manning Depot included physical training and matching of recruits to suitable positions for more specialized instruction. Some recruits finished up high school courses that were needed in preparation for their RCAF courses. Eventually, Bill Cook moved into Special Gunner Training.
It is possible that his smaller stature made him a good fit for this position because the space available in the planes for the gunners was pretty tight. Some men had to get into the space and then put their boots on. Some of the planes that were used for training in the early stages can be seen at the Western Development Museum in Moose Jaw. Other museums in Canada tell the stories of boys like Bill Cook. The Bomber Command Museum has a song video and an Air Gunner Poem that explains the challenges facing the experience of being a Gunner.
Click on the underlined words above to connect and listen: “Will I ever see my home again? Will I return to my love and my friends?”
The image I carry in my mind is Louise Cook sitting at her writing desk in my dining room. Her letter writing will continue with letters now needing to cross the ocean. After the Canadian phase of his training, Bill moved on to further training in England. He embarked in Halifax on June 2nd, 1944 and disembarked in the UK on the 10th. Eventually, he was added to the 550 Squadron who were learning to fly as a 7 man crew in the Lancaster. The specialized roles were what the seven airmen had trained for: a pilot, a flight engineer, a navigator, a bomb aimer, a wireless operator/air gunner, a mid-upper gunner and a rear gunner. The two gunners in this group were both RCAF members. Here is the list of all seven members of Bill Cook’s crew:
- F/O R G Nye (P)
- Sgt C Stuart (F/Eng)
- Sgt J Holding (Nav)
- Sgt J F Moyle (B/A
- W/O W J Howson W/Op
- F/Sgt W H Cook RCAF A/G
- F/Sgt L C Taerum RCAF A/G
Of course, there were many other members of the force that had responsibilities in preparing the flight crew and the Lancaster bomber for their operations. There is a museum in Nanton, Alberta that displays and presents a 13-minute video about the Lancaster and the kind of training and experience Bill Cook might have had.
The details of the first and last bombing mission for Bill Cook and his fellow crew members are charted by archivists and researchers with great interest and skills in Military history. I assume that there was a telegram delivered to the front door a few days after Bill’s Lancaster did not return. Then another telegram a few days later.
The complicated dealings with the Military after Bill’s death were no doubt a hardship for the grieving parents. There were issues concerning his will, his personal possessions, the identification of which airmen was buried in which grave and so on. Eventually, the efforts to support the family were supplemented by memorial attempts. There is an island in Pinehouse Lake in northern Saskatchewan that is named after Bill Cook: Cook Island. There is a sculpture at the burial site of the P221 Crew’s airmen at the Westerbeek Catholic Church. Location: Westerbeek, a small village in the commune of Oploo, is situated west of the Overloon to Oploo road. It is 3 kilometres south of Oploo and about 4 kilometres north-west of Overloon. A poem in Dutch from site translated: (Thanks to Paul Nyhof for help with translation)
Feel no pain
Feel no hate
Don’t drown in sorrow
Think of me like I was.
Young and proud
Proud of the life
That I left behind