COOPER, WILLIAM EARL
Col. William E. Cooper, U.S. Air Force, 469th Tactical Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, was lost April 24, 1966, in Vietnam. He was accounted for Dec. 22, 2014. He will be buried with full military honors.
Name: William Earl Cooper
Rank/Branch: O5/US Air Force
Unit: Squadron Commander; 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron
Date of Birth: 16 September 1920
Home City of Record: Albany GA (family in FL)
Date of Loss: 24 April 1966
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 213000N 1060400E (WJ866264)
Status (in 1973: Missing In Action
Other Personnel In Incident: Jerry D. Driscoll (released POW) in same flight
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 15 October 1990 from one or more
of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources,
correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews. Updated
by the P.O.W. NETWORK 2015.
SYNOPSIS: On April 24, 1966, a multi-plane strike force departed Korat
Airbase, Thailand on a strike mission on a highway-railroad bridge north of
Hanoi. The target was a vital link, bearing traffic coming down from China.
The Squadron Commander (and commander of the mission), LtCol. William E.
Cooper was in one flight of four F105s. In another of the flights was 1Lt.
Jerry D. Driscoll.
As the first flight approached the target, Cooper's F105D was hit by a
surface-to-air missile (SAM). The plane subsequently broke in half, and the
front section, with canopy intact, was observed as it fell into a flat spin.
Witnessed did not see Cooper eject and and believed the he went down with
the aircraft, but there was doubt enough that the Air Force determined him
Missing in Action rather than killed.
Just afterwards, 1Lt. Jerry D. Driscoll (code-name Pecan 4) was inbound to
the target, about ten miles north, going approximately 550 knots (about 600
miles per hour) when his aircraft was struck in the tail by anti-aircraft
fire, causing it to catch fire. Flames were blowing out the back twice as
long as the aircraft. Others in the flight radioed to Driscoll that he was
on fire, and he immediately prepared to eject as the aircraft commenced a
roll. Driscoll punched out at about 1000 feet, with the aircraft nearly
inverted, and as a result, his parachute barely opened before he was on the
ground. He had removed his parachute and was starting to take off his heavy
flight suit when he was surrounded by about twenty North Vietnamese and
Driscoll was moved immediately to the "Heartbreak Hotel" in Hanoi where his
interrogation (and torture) began. Driscoll was a POW for the next seven
years, and was released in Operation Homecoming on February 12, 1973.
Just before his release, one returning POW was told by his interrogators
that LtCol. Cooper had died in the crash of the aircraft. At least one
intelligence report, however, indicates that Cooper was captured alive. The
U.S. believes the Vietnamese could account for Cooper and his name has been
included on lists brought before the Vietnamese in recent years as one of
scores of "discrepancy cases" it is felt can be resolved.
When the Peace Accords were signed ending American involvement in Vietnam,
591 American prisoners were released. Experts at the time expressed dismay
that "some hundreds" expected to be released were not, yet only perfunctory
efforts to secure the release of the others were made. In our haste to leave
Indochina, we abandoned some of our best men.
Shockingly, many authorities now believe, based on over 10,000 reports
relating to these missing Americans, that there are still hundreds alive in
captivity. Whether Cooper could be among them is unknown, but what seems
certain is that if even one is still alive, we have a moral obligation to
bring him home.
William E. Cooper was awarded the Air Force Cross, Distinguished Flying
Cross with oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with 7 oak leaf clusters and the
Purple Heart. He was promoted to the rank of Colonel during the period he
was maintained Missing in Action. He is married and has five children.
Jerry D. Driscoll graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1963, and was
promoted to the rank of Captain during his captivity.
A Man is Not Dead Until He is Forgotten
The Story of William E. Cooper
On March 2, 1965, 104 US and 19 South Vietnamese aircraft struck a small military supply depot and a minor naval base in Quang Khe North Vietnam, a meager beginning to a controversial campaign known as "Operation Rolling Thunder". A little less that fourteen months later LtCol William Earl Cooper’s F105D aircraft would be cut in half by a SA-2 surface to air missile on a Rolling Thunder mission north of Hanoi
Rolling Thunder was controversial because it placed, as W. Hays Parks stated in Rolling Thunder and the Law of War, "unprecedented restrictions on U.S. strike forces ostensibly to protect the civilian population of North Vietnam."
Rolling Thunder was conceived as an interdiction campaign to convince the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that they could not win the war. Realizing that Vietnam was more a consumer nation vice a manufacturing nation, the Joint Chiefs of Staff developed a list of 94 key fixed targets to disrupt lines of communication, sever all rail and highways links to China/Russia, destroy and mine harbors and ports, destroy supply and ammunition dumps and lastly target all industrial sites outside of populated areas. President Johnson and then secretary of Defense McNamara not only rejected the "94 list" and its accession of targets but also supplanted a "limited interdiction campaign that passed through six separate phases and seven bombing halts prior to its conclusion on 31 October 1968". Thus creating not a truly military campaign but a politico-military quagmire. Parks said of Rolling Thunder, "Rolling Thunder was not a military campaign in the classical sense but a not-so-clearly defined program of ‘signals’ evolving from a politico-military strategy in which the political, including psychological, factors were not only predominant but oftentimes exclusive". Lyndon B. Johnson had entrusted the conduct of the war to the militarily incompetent Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. At the same time, Johnson and McNamara retained and controlled Rolling Thunder target selection through a Tuesday Morning Breakfast "Club" in the family quarters of the White House where a target list was reviewed and "marked-up". This micro management led Johnson to boast "the Air Force couldn't bomb an outhouse in Vietnam without his say so". Such incompetence led to "geographic prohibitions, target denial, and stringent strike restrictions and rules of engagement." This was the political reality of Operation Rolling Thunder on that overcast Sunday, April 24, 1966, when LtCol. Cooper and his strike force left Korat Air Base, Thailand.
The aircraft that Cooper and his flight flew that morning was the Republic F-105D "Thunderchief" a supersonic tactical fighter-bomber that could carry 12,000 pounds of ordnance. The plane, nicknamed the "Thud", had already proven its battle worthiness. In addition to its bomb payload the single seat fighter could be mounted with air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles as well a 6,000 round per minute Vulcan cannon.
On this day Coopers plane had a load of six 750-pound bombs. The strike team’s target was the Bac Giang Bridge, a highway-railroad bridge located 35 miles northeast of Hanoi. It was a vital link between North Vietnam and China. Cooper and his pilots knew the bridge would be well defended with Surface to Air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) emplacements. In fact, two planes and pilots had been lost the day before, this and the fact that the skies were overcast above the bridge with a low flight ceiling made for a dangerous mission. Cooper’s flight that day was called Oak, while the second flight of "Thuds" was code named Pecan. Cooper flew as Oak 1, Warren Moon was Oak 2, Jimmy Jones was Oak 3, and Dick Dutton was Oak 4.
A member of the flight recalls the mission, "The leader called
for a weapons check as we crossed the Mekong River. The ‘fence check’
was the time to confirm all switch settings and turn the master arm
switch on. At this point everything would be set to release the bombs or
fire the cannon. In the Thud there were nine switch settings the pilot
needed to confirm on the fence check. Most of them could be set prior to
takeoff except for the master arm switch."
‘Oak Two, do you have Three?’
Bia Giang had cost the Air Force four pilots in two days. The pilot
of Oak Four that day would be shot down on a later mission and spend
over six years as a POW.
Bob Krone shared a trailer at Korat with Cooper and became Squadron Commander after Coopers death. In talking about Cooper, Bob had this to say: "I was Ops [Operations Officer] and Cooper was Commander, 469th... USAF policy was that we never flew combat at the same time. On 24 April 66, afternoon, I was in Ops and got the word that both Cooper and Driscoll had been shot down. Major Jimmy Jones was number three in Coopers 4-ship flight. When Jimmy landed I climbed up the ladder to his cockpit. He had tears in his eyes and said, ‘That Stubborn old man.’"
"Cooper did not believe in taking evasive action. His first combat was in bombers [WWII], straight and level to the target. He also did not use the electronic SAM missile alert system that had been put in our planes early in 1966. The flight members picked up the SAM radar homing on their gear... Jimmy Jones called Coop with the fact they were being painted [targeted]. Coop did not respond or react. Then the missile firing radar came up on the gear. Jones called a ‘Break to the flight,’ the three members of the flight broke to the left and right, Coop kept straight and level and the missile hit him directly."
In closing Krone said, "Bill Cooper died performing what he believed to be a fighter pilot's highest duty. One evening in the trailer we shared for housing at Korat, he made this statement to me: ‘Only this is real.. ...all else is bullshit’."
Ray Davidson is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Postscript: Jerry Driscoll, Pecan 4, was first moved to the Heartbreak Hotel and later to a prison camp referred to as the Zoo. At the Zoo, Driscoll heard through another POW, Capt. Charlie Boyd, that an interrogator said to him that Cooper had initially survived the crash, but critically injured, he died in a field cradled in the arms of an old Vietnamese farmer.
Alas such an ending is not supported by fact. Part of the confusion lies with the Vietnamese terms for capture or found. Using the term that the squadron Commander had been captured/found and then stating he had been wounded and died in a farmers arms (Casualty Resolution Report of September 2, 1977) causes confusion as to what really happened. Then in 1989 the Japanese journal "Air Combat" showed photos of Coopers downed aircraft and stated that the pilot was wounded.
All of this information was rendered moot by a site visit and exhumation by the Joint Task Force - Full Accounting in November 1997, this site investigation was important for two reasons. The first was a determination that the pilot was in the cockpit upon impact. The second was the interrogatories of eyewitnesses. Chief among these was the former militia leader of Hoang Thanh Township, Le Xuan Bian. Bian saw the aircraft fall and impact in a rice paddy. He tells of his militia having to keep the villagers from around the aircraft due to its being on fire and the exploding ammunition. . That evening when the fire had stopped and they did not hear any more ammunition exploding, he and some other militiamen removed the remains of the pilot.
Coopers remains were wrapped in a woven mat and buried about 100 meters from the aircraft, along a riverbank. Over the ensuing years the remains were exhumed and moved three different times..
The visit to the crash site in 1997 produced limited results and the artifacts recovered are being reviewed by the department of defense labs.
For Cooper’s family, after all these years, all the heartache, it has come down to bone fragments and artifacts for an outside chance of a DNA match. My heart breaks for them, yet I want to believe that God's memory is long, that his silent memories are of a young Bill Cooper growing up in Albany, Georgia, a farming community, more so then than now. And contrary to Le Xuan Bian’s memories, and those of the other villagers, despite bone fragments and artifacts, I want to believe that God’s memories are of Bill dying in a field, on a farm, in the arms of a farmer. [Sigh] That he did not die alone.
Authors Note: The "Thud Drivers" and other pilots of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, a great bunch of guys, made this column possible. God Bless them and my thanks for their efforts over the "Valley", a nation owes each and every one of them its eternal gratitude. For a more about Thud Drivers read Don Henry’s book, Thunderchief, Pelican Press.
Col. William C. Cooper
United States Airman from Albany laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery
Monday night, after hearing the story, an Albany woman who owned a POW-MIA bracelet with Cooper's name on it decided to give it to the family.