Charles Cooke started his life in Fort Smith, Arkansas, far from the sea. But Charles Maynard Cooke would come to master the oceans as a naval officer. A highly intelligent and patriotic man, Cooke had graduated from both the University of Arkansas and the United States Naval Academy and steadily rose through the ranks through the years. His dedication and sharp attention to detail became invaluable as he fought to protect the nation during World War II and the early years of the Cold War.
Between 1913 and 1920, Cooke worked extensively with the early American submarine fleet, supervising their construction and testing them in the deeps. In 1920, the new sub he was commanding on a series of test runs, the S-5, sank. After the incident, the navy put him in a quieter role for a time as commander of a sub tender ship. A court of naval inquiry cleared him in the sub’s sinking. In fact, his decisive action and ability to pull the crew together saved all their lived.
In the meantime, his personal life was fraught with tragedy. His first wife died in 1917. After the S-5 incident, his eldest daughter died in 1921 while still a young child. At his lowest, he began to rebuild. He married a reporter later in 1921 in Hawaii. He had three children with his second wife.
By the 1930s, his career was steadily rising. He briefly commanded a submarine fleet on test maneuvers, which was followed by his service as commandant of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was promoted to captain in 1938 and worked on war plans staff for the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC.
The year 1941 was bookended by horrific tragedies. In January, his younger brother, also a naval officer, was killed in a plane crash. Cooke was transferred from Washington and given command of the battleship USS Pennsylvania in February 1941. By this time, the ship based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, making periodic patrols of the area. When the Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, the Pennsylvania was in dry dock undergoing renovations and maintenance. As the bombs began to drop, Cooke jumped into action and ordered his crew to open fire on the attacking aircraft. The Pennsylvania was the first to open fire in response to the attack but still suffered serious damage in the attacks.
Cooke lost 15 men in the attack. The Pennsylvania was one of the few ships to survive intact. A few days later, the Pennsylvania was ordered to sail back to California to prepare for any possible attacks on the West Coast. By early 1942, Cooke was promoted to admiral and assigned to the staff of Adm. Ernest King, the Chief of Naval Operations.
Cooke’s work with war planning included radical shifts in traditional naval strategy. The losses at Pearl Harbor in the Pacific, coupled with German u-boat attacks on ships in the Atlantic, mandated a change in tactics. Because of the huge distances between islands, ship-based planes became the standard in the Pacific. Cooke helped design battle plans based around aircraft carriers and helped the navy shift from its emphasis on battleships to the new carriers. He also worked on tactics specific to the Atlantic theater as well. This developed a two-ocean navy for the United States.
He also helped supervise and plan portions of the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. On D-Day itself, Cooke was aboard one of the battleships in the English Channel as it pummeled inland German positions and American troops stormed Omaha Beach. When World War II ended in 1945, he had been promoted up to deputy chief of naval operations.
At the end of the war, Cooke was given command of the Seventh Fleet. The Seventh Fleet was the designation given to the American ships patrolling the Western Pacific Ocean. During the war, the fleet had also incorporated many ships from the Australian navy. His position became of special importance as the Cold War began to emerge and communist forces began agitating nations across East Asia. Cooke ensured that the fleet continued to show a strong posture against any possible aggression.
Cooke retired from the navy in May 1948; but at age 62, he was far from ready to quit working. After the fall of mainland China to the communists in 1949, the surviving nationalist government had exiled itself to the island of Taiwan, still claiming to be the legitimate government of China. Cooke stepped in to serve as an unofficial advisor to the government in exile in 1950. By 1957, he had returned to his roots and became supervisor of the dry docks in Taiwan for the Ingalls Taiwan Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, a private ship-building and repair company.
He retired in the 1960s, having helped build a strong, modern navy that could withstand any provocations, both above and below the surface. Cooke died quietly at his home in California on Christmas Eve 1970. He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery, where his two brothers were also buried.