William Cooke: one of the last survivors of the D-Day landings

D-Day hero William Cooke is presented with his 70th anniversary medallion and certificate by Armagh Lord Mayor Robert Turner and by Colonel Arthur Reid.
D-Day hero William Cooke is presented with his 70th anniversary medallion and certificate by Armagh Lord Mayor Robert Turner and by Colonel Arthur Reid.

William (Billy) Cooke, who has died at the age of 89 after an illness, was one of the diminishing number of D-Day heroes still residing in the area.

Billy, whose home is at Mullavilly, joined the Royal Navy in his late teens and immediately experienced the ‘rough end’ of duty as a wireless operator, assigned to vessels making the dangerous crossing to the Normandy beaches, transporting soldiers for the historic landings.

His craft was damaged on its first crossing and had to be towed back to ‘Blighty’, but he then took part in no fewer than seven crossing to Omaha Beach after repairs had been carried out. His most vivid memories were seeing dead bodies floating on the sea. “Utter chaos and mayhem,” he recalled.

The last time we spoke to Billy Cooke, he was delighted that the French Government had decided – on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings (June last year) - to award the surviving veterans their high honour of the Croix de Guerre. He told the Portadown Times, “It’s a great honour, and we’ll talk about it when it arrives.” Sadly, he didn’t live to receive the totally deserved accolade, as the presentation had not been organised.

After D-Day, the young Billy Cooke was sent for duty to the Far East and the British Pacific Fleet, returning to the UK in November 1945 and was demobbed in March 1946. He remained a keen member of the Royal Navy Association and of Gilford Royal British Legion until his death.

Prior to joining the Navy, he had worked for a short time “on the railways” as a clerk at Newry GNR station. And 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.

He was totally devoted to his family – two sons and a daughter, Rowland (Leeds) wife Liz, Jacqueline Hamilton (Killinchy), husband Geoff, and Alasdair (Ballinamallard), wife Jennifer. There are six grandchildren – Kristofer, Alex, Adam, James, Julia and Stephanie.

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 Newtownhamilton 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.

The packed funeral service at Tandragee Presbyterian Church was conducted by Rev George McClelland and interment was at Newtownhamilton Presbyterian Churchyard in the family grave.