Days of War, Captivity, and Faith
by John Gagnon
During World War II, James Cooper ’39 cheated death. In a bomber over the flak-fierce skies above Germany, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The bomber and its crew of ten had to crash-land in a field in Holland.
“The day we went down, the group lost two planes. There were no survivors of the other plane. Everyone in our crew survived.”
“Yes, yes,” he says, even though he ended up a prisoner of war for ten months—a time of tension, boredom, loneliness, and misery.
Cooper graduated from Michigan Tech with a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering. He went to work in Arizona, then enlisted in the Army Air Force (a precursor to the Air Force), where he was a navigator on a B-24 bomber, called a Liberator. Cooper was in the 448th Bombardment Group that, between December 1943 and April 1945, flew 262 missions and lost 460 men.
Liberators, which carried a large payload and had a long range, were described as “flying boxcars” because they were more square than sleek. Like many bombers, they were dolled up with paintings of women, pictured expansively female, on the fuselage. One of the planes Cooper flew in was named Daisy Mae, from the Lil’ Abner cartoons. “We flew Daisy Mae several times and once came back with severe damage. The crew chief was upset that she had lost a finger, and he painted a purple heart on her blouse.”
After training stateside, Cooper arrived in England in April 1944. He was stationed at Seething Air Field, near Norwich, 114 miles northeast of London.
The British had a saying for American military men. “They’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here,” Cooper says. “We had the answer to that. We’re underpaid, undersexed, and under Eisenhower.” Actually, he says, the Brits treated the Americans well.
Just before his last mission, he went on a three-day pass to London. “We saw the House of Parliament, the Tower of London, and a bar or two.” Some of the city was laid waste by German rockets, called buzz bombs. “They weren’t too accurate. They had a motor that went ‘putt-putt-putt.’ As long as you could hear them, you were all right. When the fuel went, they fell wherever they were.” He recalls seeing St. Paul’s Cathedral, unscathed, with “nothing but rubble for three or four blocks on either side of it.”
Cooper’s first missions began in late May—two flights daily to the French coast, pounding Germany’s defenses and taking out bridges to prevent reinforcements and supplies. He was in the air over Normandy on D-Day.
Their bomber was low enough so that he could see the smoke, the muzzle blasts, and the ships heeled over in reaction to the guns. “You couldn’t see the landing craft, but you could see the wakes.” The sea was choked with thousands of vessels; the sky with hundreds of bombers. He saw only one German fighter plane. The pilot, he says, “was probably telling what he saw. I don’t know if anybody believed him.”
The Daily Runs
Counting the prelude to D-Day, Cooper made twelve and a half runs to the mainland. His daily routine began at four o’clock in the morning when they were rousted out of bed. First, they ate breakfast—fresh eggs for those who were flying, powdered eggs for everybody else. They attended briefings on the target, the route, the weather, reported antiaircraft fire, speed, altitude, and timing. Then they went to their planes.
“What was the mood?” Cooper is asked.
“Quiet,” he responds.
Before climbing aboard, he and his crew huddled like a football team and grasped hands. “I usually got on the plane last. Maybe that was superstitious.”
Typically, they took off thirty seconds apart in groups of up to thirty-six planes, wing tip to wing tip. “That was not without danger,” Cooper says. Clouds and contrails sometimes limited visibility. “Every week there were one or two collisions.” Each group formed on a gaudily painted, easily seen plane. His was yellow-and-black checkerboard and named You Cawn’t Miss It—which is what the British used to say when giving directions.
On their runs into Germany, they typically took off at six o’clock and returned around two o’clock. They climbed to 28,000 feet on the way there, where the temperature was fifty below zero. They had boots and clothes laced with wires that plugged into the electrical system for heat. Cooper had two pairs of gloves: heavy for warmth, nylon for manipulating equipment. They did nothing barehanded. “At that cold,” he says, “you stuck to anything you touched.”
The crew of ten consisted of pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, flight engineer, radio operator, and four gunners. “We were a team. Everybody had a specialty, and we depended on one another.” Each man was cross-trained for at least two jobs. Cooper was trained for navigator, gunner, and bombardier.
The missions into Germany were routinely 800 miles or more. (Berlin is about 570 miles from London.) Going in, they flew at 200 miles an hour with a stiff tail wind. They had oxygen for use above 10,000 feet and carried 4,000 pounds of bombs. They had radar that the Germans routinely jammed with electronic noise. They always had secondary targets, but bad weather or mechanical failure aborted some flights. Sometimes, scout planes, called Pathfinders, which had better radar, dropped flares that the bombers zeroed in on. After the drop, away from the flak, they returned to England at lower altitudes where there was less headwind and fuel consumption. After these missions, they were debriefed and then went to the officers’ club for dinner, drinks, and relaxation.
The Fateful Flight
On June 29, 1944, they bombed an engine plant in Bernburg, in central Germany. On the way back, the lead plane got confused. Cooper knew they were off course but couldn’t do anything about it. “We couldn’t leave the formation. That was a triumph of military discipline over common sense.”
They ended up flying over heavily defended Magdeburg three times. The first time around, he surmises the Germans “were having a cup of tea.” The second time—they were taking aim. The third time—“They were waiting for us.” Antiaircraft fire cut a fuel line. “We ran out of gas,” Cooper says. They jettisoned heavy equipment—including two machine guns and the radio—to lighten the load and stretch the fuel. They made it to the coast and realized they wouldn’t make it across the English Channel, so they turned around and crash-landed outside of a little town called Beemster, Holland.
On the way down, the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer stayed at their positions. The others went to the rear of the plane and sat down—feet braced, hands behind the neck, elbows on knees. Cooper prayed. “I put myself in the Lord’s hands. Whatever the decision was, I knew there was no appeal. I’d make it or not. I accepted that.”
In Holland, they landed safely. “You hit once, and you bounced pretty hard. You hit the second time, you were sliding.” The nose wheel failed, then the other two wheels went, and one engine broke loose. “That slowed us, and we stopped before a drainage ditch at the end of the field.”
He had a few cuts on his legs but otherwise was fine. He got out and used a flare gun to try to set the plane on fire. There wasn’t enough gas left for that to work. He looked around and saw dykes, fields, and windmills—and three young people, one a girl, who had retreated to the edge of the field, away from the wreck.
He swam down the ditch for two hundred yards and then crawled to a haystack. “I couldn’t dig in. Hay is hard. I didn’t know. I’m no farmer.” He managed to cover himself and lay there for six hours until a German soldier, looking for him, took a rest and sat right on him. “He was more nervous than me. He thought I had the two machine guns from the plane.”
Cooper joined the rest of his crew, all of whom had been captured. The Americans were taken by truck and train from Holland to Stalag Luft III (permanent camp for airmen), on the border between Germany and Poland. Cooper says Stalag III was “decent.” There were 10,000 men in the camp.
Craving Freedom and Food
“They locked you up and left you alone. They didn’t mistreat us, but we didn’t get fed enough.” They walked a lot. There was a library. Some men studied, some played cards, some gambled—all “good ways to kill time.”
It was lonely. “You were so out of touch,” Cooper remembers. But Yankee humor was irrepressible. He tells one story: “One fellow wrote to his wife and asked for bedroom slippers. The letter took four months to get there and an equal time to come back. She said, ‘In your letter, you mentioned slippers. What color do you want?’”
Cooper spent seven months at Stalag III. By January, the Russians had advanced to within ten miles, and the Germans moved all the prisoners out. “They figured if we joined the Russians we’d be flying again.” He and the others endured a forced march. Starting at midnight, they plodded doggedly for twenty hours the first day. The temperature was near zero with four inches of snow on the ground. They had warm wool clothes but not proper footwear. “There were a lot of frozen feet and some frozen hands.”
They walked for a week to get to Spremberg, in southeast Germany, where they were loaded into boxcars, fifty men in a car, plus a guard. Being on that boxcar for five days “was more miserable than walking,” Cooper says.
When they boarded the train, they had a quarter loaf of black bread and a piece of blood sausage. Inside, the men stood and sat in shifts. Most everybody was sick. There was vomit and excrement. “It was messy.” Cooper remembers it as the worst part of the whole ordeal.
Once or twice a day the train stopped and they were allowed to go outside. They ended up in Stalag VII-A, at Moosberg, Germany. “Things were pretty bad there.” Not much food. Overflowing latrines. A hundred thousand men, mostly French and American, shoehorned into a camp built to hold one-tenth of that. “We were packed in close. We were all lousy.”
They had a slice of black bread for breakfast, which Cooper found out later was “thirteen percent wood flour”—sawdust. That spare breakfast was followed by a lean lunch—“barley soup that occasionally had a grain of barley in it.” For dinner they had whatever they could get from the Red Cross, typically liver pate, Argentine corned beef, powdered milk, cigarettes, a chocolate bar, margarine, crackers, and sugar cubes.
Red Cross packages only dribbled in because, at that stage of the war, transportation in Germany was shot up and “nobody was getting anything.” Misery loved company, though. “We gathered strength from each other,” Cooper says. But some men cracked. “As the British say, ‘They went around the bend.’”
On April 29, Patton’s Third Army liberated the camp. It was at noon on a Sunday.
“We stepped more lively then.” There was a short battle with a German combat unit that was stationed next to the camp. Shots were going overhead. Cooper says, “We were sitting there playing cards. There wasn’t anything else to do.” American soldiers prevailed in an hour. In Moosberg, “they took down a Nazi flag on city hall and raised up an American flag. There was a lot of cheering and a few tears—from everybody in camp. The French, too.”
Soon they were trucked to France, where there were four embarkation points for America, all named for cigarettes: Camel, Lucky Strike, Old Gold, Chesterfield. He sailed on a troop ship from France to the Caribbean and then on to New York. The trip took ten days, and he entered New York Harbor on June 7, one year and one day after D-Day. “We passed the Statue of Liberty. Everybody ran to that side of the ship.”
He had sent word to his family, via the Red Cross, that he was liberated. His wife, who had their baby in the meantime, never got the message. “I called her from New York. She wasn’t sure I was alive, though she was informed that I was believed to be a POW. I didn’t talk to her too long—a lot of people were waiting to use the phone. But all of a sudden, she was very happy.”
He got a uniform, partial pay, and some leave. He arranged for his dad to reserve a cabin for two months at Twin Lakes, thirty miles southwest of his native Houghton. He had dropped from 155 to 115 pounds. “A little swimming, a lot of rowing, and I got back into good shape. Good meals and Bosch beer will do that.”
He went on to a career in the mines of Mexico. He stayed involved in an organization called the American Ex-Prisoners of War, served as national commander, and met President George W. Bush.
He returned to Holland in 1995 for the fiftieth anniversary of that nation’s Independence Day, May 5, which marked the country’s liberation from Germany. He met the girl who had been working in the field when he crash-landed. “We said hello,” he says. He also visited the prison camps.
The whole experience took a toll on him. Now age ninety-two, he says, “I’m not very patient. I don’t like loud noises or crowds.” He says crying babies disturb him. “And you have nightmares.”
“War is hell,” Cooper says.
“It’s called ‘the good war.’”
“There are no good wars.”
“What was the feeling of the time?”
“There was a saying before the war—two people are not going to war, me and the guy they send after me. But when it came along, we were right there, signing up.”
“We’re spoiled. Are people losing their resolve?”
“It seems that way. But if something comes up, they would do the same. Remember it was the Depression. There was not as much to give up.”
“Your generation is dying, and World War II is slipping from our memory.”
“It happens in life. The older you get, you accept it.”
“Are you a hero?”
“No. We’re survivors.”
“What did it take to survive?”
“Confidence that things would turn out all right in the end. Faith in the good Lord.”
“How are you doing these days?”
“I can’t complain. No pain.”