1 – William Cooke – Eight crossings to D Day beaches by Tandragee sailor. The first in a series about NI service people.
Photo above, D-Day survivor William Cooke was presented with his 70th-anniversary medallion and certificate by Armagh Lord Mayor Robert Turner and by Colonel Arthur Reid.
William ‘Billy’ Cooke was a wireless operator in the Royal Navy. He enlisted aged just 17 in June 1943. He served in the D – Day landings, South East Asia, and the Pacific. In the D – Day landings his vessel had been part of a flotilla of 12, ferrying heavy equipment and 20 men to the Normandy coast. They crossed amid bad weather and under cover of darkness, but he recalled that when they arrived it had been “chaos”.
“Between big ships firing and aircraft, I didn’t know what was going on. I was just sitting there with my earphones on me,” he said.
They then waited off the coast, although the boat became inoperable, took on water and began to drift, necessitating it being towed back into position. His most vivid memories were seeing dead bodies floating on the sea. “Utter chaos and mayhem,” he recalled. At one point during the deployment he looked over the edge, and recalled “lots of dead bodies lying about, and floating about too”.
The craft, damaged on its first crossing, had to be towed back to ‘Blighty’, but he then took part in no fewer than seven crossing to Omaha and Sword Beaches after repairs had been carried out. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 2014 when the French government recognised the surviving veterans.
After D-Day, Billy was sent for duty to the Far East and the British Pacific Fleet, returning to the UK in November 1945. He was demobbed in March 1946.
Prior to joining the Navy, he had worked for a short time “on the railways” as a clerk at Newry GNR station. After his wartime service, he took up a post as school attendance officer with the then County Armagh Education Committee. By the time he retired, he had been promoted to Chief Attendance Officer with the Southern Education and Library Board.
Billy Cooke was educated at his home village school, Newtownhamilton Public Elementary, after which he went to Newry ‘Tech’. He married a local woman. He and Mrs Bertha Cooke were wed at Clarkesbridge Presbyterian Church, three miles from Newtown, in 1954.
The greatest tragedy in their lives was in September 1975 when Mrs Cooke’s father James McKee and her brother Ronnie were among the four victims murdered by the IRA in the Tullyvallen Orange Hall massacre. “We never got over it,” said Mrs Cooke. “We just had to learn to live with it.”
Billy Cooke followed many fulfilling pursuits, not least music. He had a fine, melodic Irish tenor voice and sang in the former Richhill Male Voice Choir, then Portadown Male Voice Choir. He also sang in church choirs, earlier in Newtown -hamilton and laterally in Tandragee Presbyterian Church Choir. They moved to Tandragee in 1981 and to Mullavilly six years later.
He was an all-round musician – he could play the violin, cornet, trombone, piano and harp, and had been a member of Tullyvallen Silver Band, and a member of the Orange Lodge at Tullyvallen. Billy also loved the football scene, being a keen supporter of Portadown and Arsenal. He made the occasional trip to see the Gunners in their Highbury days. Arsenal’s unbeaten season when they won the league (2003-04) was especially pleasing for Billy. He was a great conservationist, and thoroughly enjoyed gardening – from flowers to shrubs to vegetables.
Born in Newtownhamilton, the 89 year old was resident in Mullavilly, Co. Armagh at the time of his death in June 2015. Following a service at Tandragee Presbyterian Church, interment was at Newtownhamilton Presbyterian Churchyard. He remained a keen member of the Royal Naval Association and of Gilford Royal British Legion until his death. He had been to the 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings in Normandy.
News Letter 18/07/2015
Portadown Times 24/06/2015