Staff Sgt. Shirley A. Cook had what some consider one of the most important jobs in the Korean War. As a member of the 8th Army 565th Grave Registration Company, Cook and his men served on the front lines, identifying American soldiers killed in action and preparing them to be returned home to their families — providing closure.

On Feb. 28, Cook, now 92, received a Quilt of Valor and the Maine Honorable Service Coin for Korean War Service in a ceremony at Faith Temple Church of God, surrounded by family and friends from Waldo and Knox counties.

"None of us can even imagine what you saw and what you went through," retired Navy Senior Chief Joy Lewis Asuncion said in her presentation to the Searsport man. Asuncion leads a military ministry at Faith Temple Church.

Speaking with The Republican Journal March 6, Asuncion said Cook was "part of that team that made sure the families of all those soldiers killed in action got closure."

"So many still do not have that," she said.

Some 33,666 American soldiers died in what is often referred to as the "Forgotten War" in Korea, Asuncion said, and 7,800 of them are still missing in action and unaccounted for.

"Quilts of Valor is just one example of how our country wants to ensure that all our veterans, including Korean War veterans, are not forgotten," Asuncion said. She works with the Maine unit of the national Quilts of Valor Foundation, whose volunteers make the quilts and prepare the certificates. For her part, Asuncion provides names of veterans to be honored and conducts ceremonies to make the presentations in the Midcoast and beyond.

Cook, who was born and grew up in the Belfast-Searsport area, served in Japan and Korea from 1948 to 1952.

According to his son Ronald of Searsport, as a young boy Shirley worked for a fertilizer plant in Searsport before joining the National Guard in Belfast. His unit was called to protect the town of Bar Harbor in 1947 when a forest fire raged on Mount Desert Island, burning 17,188 acres, including 10,000 in Acadia National Park. Bar Harbor was evacuated, and the National Guard was called in to guard against looters, Ronald said.

In 1948, Shirley "transferred over to regular Army and served in Okinawa, then went back to Fort Bragg," Ronald told The Journal March 5. There Shirley met and befriended Herb Hinsley of Muncie, Indiana, and the two served together thereafter with the Grave Company. They remained close friends following the war until Hinsley died of a heart attack at age 40. Hinsley "was an over-the-road truck driver who frequently drove to Bangor," Ronald said, "and always stopped to see Dad."

Sent initially to Japan, Ronald said "they loaded all their equipment onto a ship in Japan, then went to Korea. They both had separate teams that went with the frontline men to pick up the dead," heading north out of Busan (Korean pronunciation: Pusan).

"Dad just missed seeing Bob Hope because they sent him up north," Ronald said, adding that his father's unit was in North Korea at one point before the American forces were driven back.

Shirley returned home in 1952 and on Dec. 23 of that year married Irene Ward. The two had grown up together. With their four children, the couple raised chickens for Maplewood Poultry.

"Maplewood had their own farms," Ronald said. "People would live in the house and work the farm." The Cook family lived in a blue house on Waldo Avenue in Belfast; the chicken barn, now gone, sat behind the house.

"He went from that farm to the pickup crew," Ronald said, "then transferred into the plant. He was the last one to punch out when they closed the doors."

Shirley worked 28 years for Maplewood Poultry, then worked 10 years for the town of Searsport's transfer station until he retired at 62 — although he never really retired. He's been working ever since for Wayne Hamilton of Hamilton Marine, "working on the dock, fixing, maintaining," Ronald said. "Wayne needed someone to do some different stuff, and his wife, Loraine, said get Shirley. He's worked for Wayne for 30-something years now. Dad still loves working for Wayne!"

Asuncion said Shirley, in telling her about his work for Hamilton Marine, said, "'I go in when I want to and do what I can." Still driving, Shirley lives next door to Ronald and Barbara Cook in Searsport.

Shirley's wife, Irene, passed away in 2017. Of their four children, Ronald and his sister, Brenda Williams of Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, survive. Daughter Ruth Spacco of Dorchester, Mass., and son Lee Cook of Freeman, Virginia, both died in 2019. Lee served in both the Army and the Navy, seeing action in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in 1968, and later serving on the USS Warden, a Navy cruiser built at Bath Iron Works during World War II.

Shirley has 16 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren plus one on the way, all scattered around the U.S. His granddaughter Sherry Howard, town manager of Warren, was among those attending the Feb. 28 ceremony.

Asuncion said in all, eight members of Cook's family attended the Quilt of Valor presentation. "Shirley just loves his country and his family," she said. "He's a very patriotic man."

Quilts of Valor volunteers who sew the quilts for veterans pay for the materials themselves. To donate to Quilts of Valor, visit qovf.org/donate.