WWII pilot cited for valor avenging friend's death
Jacob L. Cooper discovered that his dream of becoming a military pilot might not be all that it was cracked up to be.
In the Army Air Forces’ Aviation Cadet Program at Corsicana, Texas, in April 1943, Cooper recalled not feeling “all that comfortable” up in the air with his flight instructor, whom he sat behind in a two-seat, 175-horsepower PT-19A aircraft.
While the instructor could speak to his student through a flexible tube hooked up to the trainee’s leather flight helmet, Cooper said, “You couldn’t talk back.”
He recalled that “we had to learn how to recover from tailspins by climbing with little power until the engine stalled. The airplane would then descend nose-first, rolling over and over. I had difficulty putting the plane into the tailspin. It was a very uncomfortable feeling.
“Finally, my instructor took over and told me to watch. He went into a spin, took his hands off the controls, and the plane recovered by itself. I had no problems after that.”
Cooper’s yearning to engage in dogfights with the enemy steadily increased as his training advanced, and on March 28, 1944, he and his squadron set sail from New York Harbor for Europe. Among the Utica-area native’s comrades was Jim Watson, who hailed from Herkimer, a few miles from Cooper’s hometown of Ilion.
“Also onboard were personnel from a military hospital. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that this group included 98 nurses. Many of the young flyboys were real eager to meet the nurses; however, I was still my shy, bashful self.”
The number 98, in time, would hold special significance for Cooper. By war’s end, he would fly a total of 98 combat missions in his trusty P-47 Thunderbolt. Liftoff for his first mission was May 23, 1944, with the 493rd Fighter-Bomber Squadron stationed at Ibsley in southern England.
“Many of these missions were conducted just across the English Channel in northwest France. We dive-bombed bridges and German positions, also strafing personnel and equipment. Practically all our missions were in direct support of the forthcoming invasion of France.”
Cooper, of course, was referring to D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy.
By the end of June, crude airstrips were constructed near Deux-Jumeaux, a small Normandy village, and Cooper and his fellow airmen lived in tents in a nearby apple orchard.
“We were so close to the front lines that we could hear the noise of the large guns. Most of us did not venture away from the airstrips,” he said, recalling that much of the region had been devastated.
By July 7, he was up in the air going after the enemy. But he had to be especially careful.
“Many of our missions during this time were for short durations because we were dive-bombing and strafing targets which were located directly in front of our ground troops.”
Just how close were the landing zones to the enemy?
“If you made a wide traffic pattern when taking off or landing, the German troops would shoot at you.”
On July 11, while bombing enemy tanks west of Saint-L", Cooper said, ammo from a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun punched a few holes in his left wing. But taking enemy fire, he said, soon became commonplace. During one harrowing landing, his right tire blew out, and the plane skidded off the airstrip before coming to a stop.
Later that year, during a turning point in the war, the Battle of the Bulge, it was hoped that American aircraft would play a major support role, but because of miserable winter weather conditions, he said, planes were initially grounded.
But on the second day of the famous battle, Dec. 17, the agony of war hit home for Cooper.
“My very good friend Jim Watson was shot down by a German pilot,” he said. “Another one of our pilots was lost on the same mission, one that I did not participate in. It was my day off. Our squadron was about to attack some ground targets when German planes attacked them from above and out of the sun.”
Watson’s death weighed heavily. He and Cooper had been friends since basic flying school. But, as Cooper explained, there was no “timeout” in war, and “before long, the weather improved so that I was kept busy with my flying duties.”
On the final day of the battle, Jan. 25, 1945, he avenged Watson’s death, and for that heroism, Cooper was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The order approving the medal stated, in part:
“While leading a squadron in close support of the ground forces, Lt. Cooper attacked an enemy truck and tank column with telling effect. Heedless of intense anti-aircraft fire and demonstrating superior airmanship and aggressiveness, Lt. Cooper returned alone to make numerous strafing passes until his ammunition was exhausted, inflicting additional damage on vital enemy equipment.”
By the end of the war, he had flown more than 202 hours of combat time and decided to return home for a visit, before shipping off to the Pacific for a planned invasion of Japan.
While home enjoying his mom’s cooking, word came that the war against Japan had ended.
“There was a big celebration in Ilion, even a parade,” he said. “I would not be going to the Pacific Theater after all.”
President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan had made further fighting unnecessary.
Cooper, who was honorably discharged from World War II service as a captain and went on to write a book about his experiences with the 493rd Squadron, said, “It is possible that my life and the lives of thousands of other servicemen were saved” by Truman’s decision.
It is something for which the old flyboy says he’ll be forever grateful.
Jacob L. Cooper, 88
Hometown: Ilion, Herkimer County
Branch: Army Air Forces
War Zone: Europe
Years of service: 1943-45; recalled to active duty 1953; retired 1970.
Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 15 oak leaf clusters.
Specialty: Fighter pilot