Lonnie Cook Survived the USS Arizona Bombing

Carmichael, CA  |  Story by Trina L. Drotar
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Photos by Trina L. Drotar and courtesy Lonnie Cook

CARMICHAEL, CA (MPG) – Lonnie Cook and his wife of 68 years, Marietta, have lived in Aegis of Carmichael since July after moving from Oklahoma. Cook is witty, a natural storyteller, just a tad bit feisty, and he recently celebrated his 98th birthday. He’s a celebrity without a star on the Hollywood or Sacramento Walks of Fame. He has no viral videos on YouTube or Facebook. He is, however, one of only 335 men who survived the attack on the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941, and as of 2017, was one only five still living. And he knows exactly where he was when the bombs hit.

He entered the U.S. Navy when he was 19 years old. Only two years into his six year term, after having showered and changed into clothes to go ashore in, the bombs hit the battleship.

 “It’s good I didn’t take too long,” he said, “or I would have been blown up.”

Cook was part of the 3rd division in charge of the gun turret. The ship, he said, sunk 15 to 18 feet before the orders to abandon were given. The next morning, he was one of several men who volunteered to go on the destroyers.

The couple was married two years after Cook finished his service. He attended college in Salinas and learned to weld. He spent 30 years as a welder.

 “I helped build the two largest boilers west of the Mississippi River for Babcock and Wilcox and Kellogg, and I put a 20” gas line right through Brooklyn, NY in ’57,” he said.

The couple traveled the country for work, and he has many stories. He worked 75 straight graveyard shifts once, but could not spend all the money he had earned. He needed the sleep.

 “We bought a house, paid $59 thousand for it. I don’t remember what we put down. Three years later, I put $37 thousand cash in a paper sack, my 45 in my belt, and we went to Salinas Bank to pay the house off.” This would be unimaginable today as would be the hunting he did on his way to and from high school each day.

Cook, who is not a large man, was captain of his high school football team three out of four years, and he smiles a bit when he says that he crowned three football queens. He is not a football follower and admits that he had considered basketball a sissy game, but he has since learned that it is not. Cook always chose hunting season over basketball.

He joined the service, he said, because he had no work and no money.

 “I had to do something,” he said.

His mom sent him to business school, but that did not work out because the city, with its street cars and police sirens, was too loud for the young man who grew up in the country.

 “I couldn’t sleep, so I told her I’m not going back, so I joined the service.”           

Two years later, he was on the USS Arizona expecting to go ashore on leave when the bombs dropped.

 “Our shower was up just forward of where it blew up,” he said. “I’d just come back down to my locker.” His work station was Turret 3 as part of the gun crew and he was at the bottom when the bombs dropped.

“I started up through the turret and I was half way up on the shell deck when it exploded and it turned the lights out and almost knocked me off the ladder, but I went on up into the gun room and we stayed there until we could go up on deck and take people off.”

Most of the people on deck were crippled and burned beyond recognition he recalled and since the day’s uniform was t-shirts and white shorts, the men had no protection.

Cook ended up on the USS Patterson DD-392 for temporary duty. He saw Lt. O’Hare shoot down six planes and become the first navy ace. He was in the Coral Sea battle when the Lexington was sunk, and went to Midway.

 “When that was over I went to Alaska and took a tanker back to Pearl. I got transferred and went to electro hydraulic gunnery school in D.C. for three months,” he said. “We got a call to go New York City to pick up the Battleship Iowa, which was a new battleship, and escorted it with President Roosevelt to Africa.” The men spent time down the coast of Africa while President Roosevelt was engaged in meetings.

 “I spent four days there, then came back to pick the battleship up, took it back to New York, and went down through the canal in time for January 1st.”

He served in the Marshall Islands, Taipan, and made three landings in the Philippines before being transferred to Charleston, South Carolina to work on the hull of the USS 583 and picked up a convoy to the Azores.

“When that was all over, went through the canal and in February ’45 we hit Iwo Jima, landed troops, and when that was over, April 1st we hit Okinawa. We stayed there until that over June 23rd. We come back to San Francisco and that ended my wartime,” he added.

Cook never returned to the military service and was not eligible for the draft. The last two ships he served on accumulated a total of 31 battle stars.

He returned to Oklahoma where he met his bride. Although she would follow him for most of his post-military career, he first followed her to California because she was going to care for a pregnant friend. The couple married in June of 1950 in a private wedding, spent 30 years in Salinas, 29 in Oklahoma, and returned to California once again because his bride wanted to.

 “I didn’t want to, of course,” he said about leaving Oklahoma. “I decided she deserved what she wanted, so I gave up everything I had- guns, fishing tackle, everything I had - and we come to California.