By Russell Sellers, Army Flier Staff WriterAugust 3, 2011
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- It may have taken nearly 70 years for World War II veteran Ret. Staff Sgt. James O. Cockerham to get his Bronze Star, but thanks to his grandson, Capt. Kevin T. Riley, it happened here July 26.
The medal was awarded by Maj. Gen. Anthony G. Crutchfield, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker commanding general, during a short ceremony at Adams Hall.
Riley, a student in the Aviation Captains Career Course, said he learned of his grandfather’s achievements through talking to him about his experiences in C Company, 1st Battalion, 263rd Infantry Regiment, 66th Infantry Division.
“Once I found out he was supposed to have the medal, I started doing research to find out how we could get it awarded to him,” Riley said. “I found the regulation that said WWII veterans could be awarded the medal, contacted our state senator and things just progressed from there.”
Getting the proper paperwork was no easy task, however. Cockerham had to prove he served in the Army at the time he claimed, but the paperwork confirming it had been lost nearly 30 years prior.
“He had a combat infantry badge and had orders for the Bronze Star, but he didn’t have a copy of his discharge paperwork,” Riley said. “The archives building burned in the 1970s and his copy was stolen in a home invasion. All we had to go on were old pictures. My dad scanned those and e-mailed them to me and the Army processed it. After that, I started getting calls from people to find out when and where we could present it to him.”
Cockerham, while in good physical condition, has experienced some memory loss after 70 years, Riley said in a letter to Crutchfield, but he was still able to make the trip from Winston-Salem, N.C., to receive his medal and to say thanks to those who helped make it happen.
“All of this is a total surprise to me,” Cockerham said. “I really appreciate what everyone has done for me and I accept this great honor.”
Crutchfield conducted the award ceremony and told those in attendance about Cockerham’s experiences in the Army, as told to him through Riley last month. After beginning his military career at what was then called Camp Rucker, he shipped out to Camp Shanks, N.Y., and later moved to England. It was on his trip to the English shores that the battle found him.
“His ship was torpedoed on his 19th birthday just outside Portsmouth, England, before the unit even reached the English shores,” Crutchfield said. “How would you like that? Before he even made it to the combat theater, his ship goes down. Fortunately, he was unhurt in the attack, and he did manage to make it to England for more training and prepared to move into France after completing that training.”
On Christmas Eve, 1944, Cockerham’s unit boarded two ships, the Chesire and the Leopoldville, to cross the English Channel. That night, the Leopoldville was torpedoed off the French port of Cherbourg with nearly 800 Soldiers from the 66th Infantry Division lost. Luckily, Cockerham was not aboard the attacked ship.
On Christmas Day, 1944, the regiments of the 66th Infantry Division reorganized in Cherbourg with the survivors from the Leopoldville and prepared to assume the mission from the 94th Infantry Division in western France.
“I don’t know if I would have had the courage and fortitude to do what you did,” Crutchfield said to Cockerham. “It was remarkable just reading what (Riley) told me you did. This was a time when the Germans weren’t going to let us take a foothold in Germany. Cockerham was there and fought along with his unit and others until the eventual surrender of Germany.”
Cockerham added that he was very proud of his grandson’s decision to be part of the Army and thanked Crutchfield for taking the time to present the award to him.
Crutchfield closed his remarks by quoting a line from the film Saving Private Ryan and said that Cockerham had definitely lived a life worthy of “the Greatest Generation.”
“You have definitely lived a great life, sir,” Crutchfield said. “You have a legacy of that life around you here today and it is my honor to present this medal to you.”