On an unseasonably warm day in the middle of December, an unexpected call breaks through the sound of the rain’s consistent tapping on the window. A woman’s voice rings out, laced with years of memories and sentiment.
“I’ve talked with my daughters and we all agree that I owe it to Tom to tell his story.”
The voice belongs to Arllys Crook, the mother of Private First Class Thomas Crook of the Marine Corps. Though miles apart, the airwaves carry the story of a “wonderful young man,” her son, who gave his life in Vietnam to protect our country over 45 years ago. It’s fairly unusual to still find a living parent of a Vietnam-era soldier.
But as all good stories go, they start at the beginning. Thomas Crook or “Tom” as he was known to his family and friends was born on Nov. 5, 1948. In the town of Campbellsport, Arllys and her husband John welcomed Thomas into the world almost two years after they were married. While he was born in Fond du Lac County, Thomas came to call West Bend “home” as he grew up.
His time spent in Washington County was one of exuberance and youth. Thomas was described as “very congenial” and he never picked a fight with anyone. However, he was known to tease his sisters, Jean and Judith. Being a great guy meant that Thomas had a lot friends, spending a majority of his time with them. They would often go to each other’s houses to hang out.
Arllys recalls the times that they would spend at the Crook household, including her in their time together. They would play the card game “Sheepshead” together and would enjoy sitting around the table conversing with each other.
In the times not spent at one another’s houses, Thomas and his friends could be found driving around in his ’57 Chevrolet. Using the money he earned working at a local factory and with a little help from his father, Thomas bought his very own car.
The minor bars were also a hot spot for Thomas and his friends. They spent many nights there, enjoying their youth and living their lives to the fullest. As a 19-year-old man, he couldn’t have asked for more.
“They had their fun times,” Arllys recalled fondly.
It wasn’t just his friends and his family that Thomas spent his days with, for a lot of his time was also devoted to his girlfriend, Carol. They met each other at Cedar Lake in the summer of 1967 when Carol was up there with her brother. Thomas and Carol spent as much time as they could together whenever that was possible. She lived in Milwaukee so Thomas did his best to drive into the city when he could. The same went for her as Arllys recalled Carol coming over to their house a lot. They dated for a year or so before Thomas enlisted.
In 1968, the draft was looming over the heads of the young men in West Bend. Many of Thomas’ friends enrolled for college in order to avoid the draft. Though he was a smart man with good grades, school just wasn’t for Thomas.
“His heart wasn’t in it,” Arllys explained.
Knowing that he didn’t want to go to college and would therefore be drafted the next year, Thomas took the initiative himself. With one of his friends, Thomas enlisted in the Marines. It takes good grades to get into the Marines, so Thomas took his intelligence and his sense of duty and joined the military. As soon as he signed up, he went home to tell his parents.
“He didn’t tell us beforehand,” Arlyss recalled thoughtfully. “I think that he wanted to make his own choice.”
His father was upset but not for reasons one would expect. John was a Navy man himself and wished that Thomas had enlisted in the Navy as well. That way, he would know that his son had a clean bed to sleep on at night.
The summer of ’68 approached and so did Thomas’ deployment date for training. The beginning of the summer was picnic season in West Bend and, thankfully, he was able to stay for the fun. Come July, Thomas went to San Diego for basic training at Camp Pendleton. It would be quite a while before he was able to return home. His leave was delayed several times because many of his troop members had meningitis. But when December came in ’68, Thomas came home.
It shows what kind of man he was and the value his family held to him, that at 20-years-old, the first thing he did when returning home was visited his grandparents in the nursing home. The second thing he did? Sat down for Thanksgiving dinner.
“I didn’t want to have Thanksgiving without him so I waited until he came home to cook Thanksgiving dinner,” says Arllys.
Almost immediately after Thanksgiving celebration came Christmas. Thomas’ last Christmas was one of joy and to be remembered. All of his family that was able to come, attended Christmas and he was able to spend the holiday with them. After the holidays, Thomas and his father went up north to spend a couple weeks icefishing. It was a time of bonding between the two, a father and son getting to know each other before dark days approached.
His leave ended and it was time for him to fulfill his duty. On Jan. 19, 1969, Thomas was deployed immediately to Vietnam. He spent 39 days overseas before falling outright to gunfire. February 23, was the day that Thomas gave everything to protect his country, but even more importantly, the ones he cared for. Carol, his family, and all of his friends were all worth fighting for and he gave his life for their sake too.
“We are really proud of him,” Arllys says, recalling the brave young man that she raised.
At the Holy Angel Cemetery in West Bend, you can find Private First Class Thomas Crook, a man known by many and loved by all. Besides his father, he rests, eternally, with a plaque commemorating his selflessness. The flag that waves next to his plaque is a reminder that Thomas Crook put his loved ones and his country before himself.