The Navy frigate named after Vietnam War hero Lt. Cmdr. Wilmer Paul Cook performed a solemn mission Monday, scattering its namesake's ashes at sea 22 years after the combat pilot died in battle.
The Cook left port in San Diego Monday morning and paused off the coast for the 20-minute service before resuming training maneuvers, Navy spokesman Cmdr. David Dillon said.
Cook, a highly decorated A-4 Skyhawk pilot, was shot down three days before Christmas in 1967, while leading an air strike over North Vietnam. He was listed as missing for more than 20 years before his remains were returned to the United States last year.
Earlier this year, his remains were identified by the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii and the family notified.
"It's nice that he came home finally. It's nice that he's back in the United States. That's all I care about really," said his eldest son, Wilmer Paul Cook Jr. "It eased my mind to know where he is exactly. For years, I didn't know whether he was alive or dead."
Cook, 31; his brother, John, 26; and their uncle, John M. Cook Jr., 65, of Titusville, N.J., attended a memorial service aboard the frigate in port Friday.
The family requested that Cook's remains be scattered at sea from the ship that bears his name.
"I wanted him to be remembered by the ship and the people who make it go," the flier's oldest son said.
"It's a rare occasion for a ship and its crew to be able to honor the man for whom the ship is named, and to commend the remains to the deep," the frigate's skipper, Cmdr. Richard Kalb, said at Friday's memorial.
Monday's service was believed to be the first in which a Navy ship was involved in the sea burial of its namesake, Dillon said.
Petty Officer 1st Class James Gorham, who attended Monday's service on behalf of the family before returning to San Diego by helicopter, said the ship was brought to a stop and the crew of 250 mustered to pay final respects.
Navy Chaplain James Sharrett led a prayer and read from the Scriptures as the ship's executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Steven Bostwick, scattered the ashes into the Pacific.
A seven-member honor guard fired three volleys into a clear sky to salute the dead pilot, and taps was played to conclude the service.
The frigate Cook was commissioned in 1971 in New Orleans. It was named after Cook, who was 35 when he died, because of his record of valor, Dillon said.
"Navy frigates like this are traditionally named after military heroes," he said.
Cook, a native of Annapolis, Md., and a 1956 Naval Academy graduate, became an aviator in 1957. His carrier-based squadron was sent to Vietnam in 1965.
He flew more than 300 missions in his Skyhawk, named the "City of Annapolis," during two tours to the Tonkin Gulf on the carriers Constellation and Coral Sea.
Among his commendations were three Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals for aerial combat. He was considered an expert in the A-4 Skyhawk and had been urged to return stateside to train others but felt he was needed more on the front line.
On the day he was shot down, the Navy said, he had turned down shore duty to lead the fateful air strike.
"I'll always go where my country sends me and will always do whatever it asks," Cook once wrote in a letter to his parents. "Perhaps what I am doing may keep my two sons from going to war."