Erle Cocke Jr., 78, War Hero Who Led American Legion


By Eric Page, , April 26, 2000


Erle Cocke Jr., a decorated World War II soldier who was the national commander of the American Legion in 1950 and 1951, died on Sunday at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 78.

The cause was cancer.

Mr. Cocke, at age 29, became the youngest-ever commander of the American Legion, the country's largest veterans' organization.

A native of Dawson, Ga., Mr. Cocke graduated from the University of Georgia in 1942 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army infantry. He worked his way through the ranks, becoming a rifle company commander, a battalion executive officer and then a battalion commander.

He was wounded three times, was captured by the Germans and escaped three times. He narrowly escaped being executed by the Waffen SS after he was captured the third time, with his unit, in 1945.

Mr. Cocke and several others had escaped but were recaptured by SS troops. They were ordered executed, and he was left for dead among a group of American soldiers shot in a German village by a firing squad.

Hours later, a villager, Lukas Walters, found him and hid him in a barn. There a farmer, Karl Bart, tended his wounds until he was rescued.

Mr. Cocke would spent 14 months as a patient in 27 hospitals, 11 in the United States. He underwent 17 major operations.

His former division commander, Maj. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, said later that Mr. Cocke had "displayed courage of the highest degree, enthusiasm and excellent judgment."

He left the service as a major after receiving the Silver Star, the Purple Heart with three clusters, the Bronze Star and the French Croix de Guerre.

In 1999 he said: "I would have apologized the rest of my life if I had not been in World War II. I owed my government that much. That was my opportunity to contribute."

After the war, he earned a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University.

He was a farmer and railroad executive when he was elected commander of the Legion. He was outspoken in the post, urging more than once that the Soviet Union be expelled from the United Nations.

Mr. Cocke headed a Legion drive to oust Secretary of State Dean Acheson and a campaign to have all members of the Communist Party in the United States arrested and tried for treason.

He also called for an end to the nation's foreign economic aid program.

In 1951, when President Harry S. Truman relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur of command in Korea and the Far East, Mr. Cocke came out in support of the general's proposal to use Chiang Kai-shek's troops in Taiwan to open a second front against the Chinese Communists on the mainland. Mr. Cocke also backed MacArthur's demand for the authority to bomb Chinese bases in Manchuria.

Later that day Truman canceled a meeting with Mr. Cocke. Some days later, Mr. Cocke, in a speech at a Legion convention in Florida, contended that soldiers, not "swivel-chair politicians or striped-pants diplomats" should make the United States' war decisions.

Nonetheless, Truman would later appoint Mr. Cocke to be a consultant for the Defense Department. President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Mr. Cocke an alternate representative to a session of the United Nations General Assembly. He also held a World Bank post in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and was a friend of President Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Cocke was active in Democratic politics, was a brigadier general in the Georgia National Guard and was president of the lobbying firm Cocke & Phillips.

He is survived by his wife, Madelyn; three daughters, Elise C. Cocke, Jennifer C. Carpenter and Carolyn C. Whitsett.

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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov