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On eve of 100 years, WW II veteran of 299th unit 'last of the line'

Watertown Daily Times - 5/25/2024

May 25—WATERTOWN — Seventeen years ago, when Paul L. Cook was just a bit more spry than he is now a few days short of 100, he created a list.

He spent days poring over files in the Watertown Daily Times library seeking names and came away with 33 of them. They represented every north country soldier assigned to the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion, a unit formed in 1943 that stormed the beaches of Normandy and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. "I kind of feel like it's my place to carry it forward," he said at the time.

Now, Cook is going forward alone. He turns 100 on Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day, and he believes he's likely the last veteran on his local 299th list who is still alive. The battalion was made up of many soldiers from Watertown and other portions of Northern New York, Syracuse, Auburn, Rochester, Buffalo, Binghamton and Niagara Falls.

Among his north country 299th comrades the last to fall:

Stewart F. MacMillan, Guffin Bay, died in 2011 at 87; William H. McGarry, Brownville, died in 2020 at the age of 96 and Andrew L. Miles, Watertown, died in 2009 at the age of 85.

"Someone told me I was the last of the line," he said of his north country 299th Combat Engineer Battalion legacy. "I didn't realize I had come that far."

In March 1943, the young men trekked from Watertown to Fort Niagara to be inducted into the Army. In October 2006, the path they traveled, along Interstate-190 from the town of Tonawanda to Fort Niagara State Park, was dedicated as the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion Memorial Highway.

After being inducted into the Army at Fort Niagara, the draftees made four training stops before shipping off to Great Britain to prepare for the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Cook is largely independent and lives by himself at his home on Elm Street, a quiet dead-end road. He likes to get out, especially to restaurants, but stopped driving last summer. If turning 100 has a certain look and disposition, Cook has neither. He could pass for someone years younger and chatting with him is easy and engaging.

"It's nothing that I put my mind to," Cook said of turning 100 during a Tuesday visit to his home. "It's this birthday and that birthday, and then — holy cow, you are 99. And if you make it another week or two, you're going to get that 100."

"He's the kind of person who has never taken an aspirin or a pain pill or used pesticide outside," daughter Nancy A. Navarra, who lives a few blocks away, said. "He never had a flu shot. He did take the COVID shot."

"I seem to have enough energy to be active," Cook said. "And a lot of people don't."

Before the war, Cook worked as a grocery clerk. He was employed by the Mohican Co., A&P and California Fruit. He quit school with six months to go until he would finish. "I didn't have any guidance in a home setting, I'll put it that way because that's really what it was," he said. "If I had a mom and dad who were right there, they would have made sure you were going the right way and doing the right thing."

Cook was drafted into the Army. "You either rushed to join up, you were dragged in like I was or you just wanted to volunteer to do your part in life and sign up. I felt like I didn't want to go into the service and they were going to have to get me, so they came after me with the draft."

The Army selected the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion as his unit. "I think they put me in the engineers because I was a grocery store clerk," he said, noting his organizational skills. "They needed an orderly type of person, which I qualified for. I like that kind of work."

At his home, Cook grasped a history book a member of the 299th put together. He opened it and out came a flood of photos, mementoes, notes and thoughts of appreciation.

"I was fortunate enough to be placed in the formation of this engineer combat battalion. It was pretty special, actually. Some guy in our headquarters company was pretty proficient about putting a story together, and he put this together."

Key on D-Day, aftermath

The 299th Combat Engineer Battalion was activated in March 1943 at Camp White, Oregon. Cook recalled it took his ship, which left from New York Harbor, two weeks to reach Europe. It was an eye-opening experience. "I had only been in a row boat, and here I was on a ship going past the Statue of Liberty."

Divers from the 299th were among the first Allied troops in the water on D-Day, using explosives-filled condoms to destroy some construction debris planted by the Germans to impede the infantrymen's assault. Cook crossed into Europe about four weeks later, having been part of a rear echelon that remained in England.

Once in France, Cook's job was recognizance. "We would go undercover unbeknownst to the Germans that we were around gathering information about the enemy, like where they had a big gathering of troops," he said. "It was a risky job."

Cook served from March 1943 to December 1945. In addition to the Battle of Normandy, he served in the battles and campaigns in the Ardennes, Central Europe, northern France and the Rhineland.

After the war, he returned to grocery clerk duties as he briefly considered taking advantage of the GI Bill to further his education. "That was probably the second biggest mistake I ever made in my life," he said of not pursuing his education.

Which begged the question, "The first?":

His answer was followed by a hearty laugh: "I was searching for it, and I can't remember. I got so many of them!"

Cook returned to his grocery clerk duties directly after the war, managing vegetables at the Mohican. But he knew of a woman, an "Angel," who worked at the store's bakery counter — Angeline Leccarde, a 1946 graduate of Watertown High School. Their romance began after the war. "To me, it was a follow-up," he said.

The couple were wed on June 20, 1948, at Holy Family Church with the Rev. William J. Argy officiating.

Later, he was employed at Hall Ski-Lift Co., now VonRoll Tramways Co., West Main Street, Watertown, for 19 years. In Later years, he became an officer promotions clerk for the 10th Mountain Division Personnel Service Battalion at Fort Drum.

Angeline was employed by Westinghouse Electric Co., and A.W. Santway Co. Inc. She died in 2003 at the age of 74.

In addition to daughter Nancy, Cook has a son, Timothy P., Webster, and Christine, Star Lake. Both of them also live seasonally in Florida.

Cook's children have made 100th birthday plans: breakfast at The Crystal and dinner at Art's Jug, two of his favorite eating establishments.

"And the following Saturday, June 1, we'll have a party at Ives Hill Country Club," Navarra said.

"I like to play golf too, but I'm not that good," Cook said. "I'm going to eat!"


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