Last month, before leaving for New York, I was looking through some albums for interesting items to write about. I came upon a group of licenses from Maryland that I had acquired from an advanced collector in the mid 1990’s. Each of the licenses was made out to Gilbert D. Cooper of Brunswick, MD and affixed to each was an unusual non pictorial fishing stamp that the collector claimed were the only examples he had ever seen. To this day I have never seen or heard of any others and thought they might make an interesting story. However, all I possessed was the stamps and no knowledge about Mr. Cooper with which to get started.
I decided to plug his name into Google, in hopes of finding some background information. One of the first items to pop up was Gilbert D. Cooper in Brunswick, MD with an address and phone number. Recognizing the address and phone number to be the same as on the licenses, my heart raced as I dialed. I calculated that if Mr. Cooper was still alive, he would be 94 years old. After ringing several times it was picked up by an answering machine. I started to introduce myself to the answering machine when, after a about a minute, a sweet sounding woman’s voice picked up the phone and spoke.
I thought to myself, this woman must be Mr. Cooper’s daughter. After talking for a few minutes she informed me that she was Gilbert’s wife Jeanette and, although Gilbert had passed away in 2002, she was six years younger and still here (and still sharp as a tack). I explained who I was and asked if she would be interested in helping me write this story. After asking me a few questions she readily agreed and we talked for a couple of hours longer. I then realized that with her invaluable contribution and some additional research, I could do this.
Gilbert Dewey Cooper was born born March 18, 1922 in Lovettsville, Virginia. Lovettsville is a small town located in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the northern tip of Virginia and was settled primarily by German immigrants in 1836. The 2010 census lists the population at 1,613. Gilbert was the son of Millard and Flossie Cooper. Gilbert was raised and worked on the family farm in Lovettsville, where he also fished, hunted and trapped.
When WW2 started, Gilbert was living in the District of Columbia, had a grammar school eduction and was single with no dependents. On the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1942, Gilbert drove down to Richmond, Virginia and enlisted in the army. At the time of his enlistment, Gilbert was 20 years old.
Gilbert served in the 394th Infantry of the 99th Division of the U.S. Army. He was a machine gunner, serial number 13143432. After rising to the rank of sergeant, Gilbert was assigned to the European Theatre with the 394th (see Figure 1). Shortly after arriving in Europe and exactly two years after enlisting, Gilbert found himself in Belgium – at the Battle of the Bulge.
The Battle of the Bulge
On December 16th, 1944, the U.S army began to fight its largest battle in history in the deep snow of the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. U.S intelligence had determined that the Ardennes sector was weakly defended by the lowest level of German forces, including wounded soldiers, those missing eyes or limbs and the very young and very old. For this reason, the area was chosen to train newly arrived, untested infantry divisions fresh from the states as well as to rest our own tired and wounded.
In fact, the opposite was true. Forming up around the Ardennes were 30 of Germany’s most elite divisions getting ready for an offensive aimed at splitting the Allied army in two and ultimately capture the port city of Antwerp. It was the first time the U.S. army would face such a powerful German force in WW2.
When the German offensive began, most of our GIs at the front line were caught completely by surprise and the new German tanks could not be stopped. The new tanks were called the King Tiger (or Tiger 2). The snow further hindered the efforts of the infantry to fight back (see Figure 2). They were ordered to hold their positions “at all costs” and only surrendered after running out of ammunition. In the first 48 hours, two out of every three U.S. soldiers were captured or killed as the Germans began their push 60 miles into allied lines (see Figure 3).
Allied units from all over France were rushed in to reinforce the “Bulge”, however there was a manpower shortage and many soldiers in these units consisted of converted cooks and mechanics. It was not until the end of December, when the weather broke and General Patton’s Third Army arrived, that the momentum began to shift (see Figure 4). By January 28th, 1945, U.S. forces had succeeded in pushing the Germans back to the initial positions of December 16th. One million soldiers participated in the battle which lasted for six weeks and resulted in 67,000 U.S. and over 100,000 German casualties.
Prisoner of War
Over 26,000 U.S. soldiers were captured during the Battle of the Bulge, including sergeant Gilbert D. Cooper. Gilbert was ultimately sent to Stalag 13, near Hammelburg, Germany. Unlike the popular television show, Hogan’s Heroes, this was a grim time for all U.S. prisoners of war. The experience left Gilbert emotionally scarred and he did not even tell his wife he had been a POW until after they were married. In Jeanette’s words:
“Gilbert told me the day he was captured it was freezing cold and he was in a foxhole surrounded by deep snow. He continued to fire his machine gun until he was overrun by German soldiers and captured. Immediately after being captured the Germans continuously moved him and all the POWs around to avoid having them being retaken by allied troops.
The POWs were marched nearly non-stop in snow that was three feet high. When their shoes wore out they strapped cardboard on their feet. When their friends dropped, they were prevented from helping them up and they were left to freeze to death. They were given very little food to eat, not out of meanness but simply because the Germans had very little food themselves to share.
At one point (probably after being incarcerated at Stalag 13), Gilbert was temporarily assigned to help out a German woman whose elder husband was seized by the German army and thrown into the fighting. She was left alone with the exception of one daughter. They had a farm and the Germans had learned that Gilbert had experience working on a farm before the war. While serving on the farm, Gilbert ate animal food and egg shells to avoid starvation.”
Gilbert D. Cooper’s capture was first reported to the International Committee of the Red Cross on December 18, 1944 and the last report was made on May 26th, 1945. He spent four and a half months in captivity. On April 6th, 1945, U.S. forces liberated the prisoners currently held at Stalag 13 (see Figure 5). However, Gilbert was not among them. According to Jeanette, the Germans put Gilbert and many of the prisoners on trains and kept moving them around Germany to keep them form being liberated by Allied forces. Gilbert was not freed until nearly three weeks after the German’s officially surrendered on May 8th, 1945.
After being released, Gilbert was sent to France to convalesce (according to Jeanette he never fully recovered). He was honorably discharged the summer of 1945. He received the the following decorations and citations: Good Conduct Medal, Distinguished Unit Badge, American Theater Ribbon, European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon, World War II Victory Ribbon and the Bronze Star.
Return to Lovettsville
Gilbert finally returned to Lovettsville late in the summer of 1945. At this time, Jeanette was eighteen and had just graduated from high school in June. She immediately went to work in the Maritime Service in Washington, D.C. until the war ended, then worked for a short time in New York before returning to Brunswick, MD in 1947.
Upon her return, Gilbert and Jeanette met through a mutual friend who lived in Lovettsville. Initially, Jeanette was seeing some one else. When their relationship ended, she started dating Gilbert and within six months they were married. They lived across town in Brunswick for a period of time before finally buying her parents home (and the home where she was raised). Gilbert and Jeanette lived together at 206 9th Avenue in Brunswick for 55 years until he passed away in 2002. Jeanette still lives there today.