Othal Cooper was born in Bradford, Arkansas. After graduating high school in 1950, he enlisted in the Air Force to avoid being drafted. He shares that after months of training, he went to Okinawa, Japan, to work on planes that flew over the Korean Peninsula. He recalls that his specialty was working as an airplane engine mechanic, specifically working with B-29 planes. He describes what life was like in Okinawa, the details of his job specialty, enduring typhoons, and his reflection of the possible closure of the Korean War. He is proud of his service and expresses his appreciation for being given the chance to share his story.
Enlist or Be Drafted
Othal Cooper explains what it was like for a boy straight out of high school in 1950s America. He recalls all boys of age knowing that they would have to serve in the U.S. military. He shares that one could voluntarily enlist and have a choice in the matter as to which branch of the military he was placed, or the alternate, wait and be drafted with no choice.
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Othal Cooper explains the night raid missions of the B-29 planes on which he worked. He details how the night flyers would drop tinfoil from their planes to deter enemy radar, referring to it as radar jamming. He explains that by doing this it was more difficult for the enemy to shoot the planes down and recalls no planes receiving a direct hit while he was there.
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Othal Cooper reflects on how the Korean War relates to the U.S. Civil War. He makes many parallels on what life would be like today in the U.S. if we had never ended our conflict. He explains what situations many Koreans must endure today due to lack of peace negotiations.
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[Beginning of Recorded Material]
Othal Cooper: I was born in Arkansas a place called Bradford, Arkansas.
O: In August the 2nd1930.
I: Are you an only child?
O: Say again?
I: Were–were you an only child? Do you have any siblings?
O: I–I had a–a total of 3 of us boys
O: and three girls.
I: Oh wow, so six of–or six altogether.
O: And my mother had twins, but they–they
took them too early, not knowing that she was going to have twins, they just thought she was ready for birth and they took them early and they both died, a boy and a girl. So there would have been four boys and four girls.
I: Oh my goodness.
O: But as–after they didn’t make it. The oldest one lived a little over a day.
I: I’m very sorry to hear that–it’s–hard to go through that.
O: And–I– graduated from Bradford High School–
I: So, you grew up–mm-hmm
O: in 1950.
I: And what were you–so you enlisted into what branch?
O: Air Force.
I: Air Force. What made you decide to enlist?
O: I decided to enlist at which time I was employed with the Chevrolet place in Flint, Michigan.
O: and I decided to enlist because I didn’t want to be drafted
into the Army. I wanted the Air Force.
I: Mm-hmm. You knew it was coming?
O: I had an older brother in the Air Force. And also had a younger brother that also joined the Air Force so there were three of us, at one time, in the Air Force. Three brothers.
O: I had three sisters all younger than me and I had, after graduating from high school
in Bradford, I went to work at the Chevrolet place in Flint, Michigan andi was employed there for about three months and learned that I had a–a good chance to join the Air Force instead of being drafted.
O: So I quit, to come home and joined the Air Force.
I: So, you knew the draft was coming.
I: Had a lot of your friends been drafted or people that you know?
O: Some of the boys at–at Bradford High School had been drafted already and so I decided that I wanted to get in there for sure. My brother was in there first– oldest brother.
I: While you could decide.
O: And he went in as an enlisted man and got his Master Sergeants rank and decided that he wanted to go and get his commission. And so, he went to–to school to be a commissioned officer. Got his Second Lieutenants
rank and then he–when he retired with a–I believe it was 21 year service, he was a Capitan so, he got his commissioned officers rank and was promoted through Capitan’s rank and when I got in, I had the option to go to the school. The Air Force sent me to the College of Aeronautics in
Santa Maria, California. Chan–at Hancock Field and when I graduated from there, I had majored in electrical after getting my airplane engine mechanics school. And I decided and they offered me a chance to take more school. So I went to Chanute Field Illinois and ran tool where they
put me in electrical training
O: For, I think about four and a half months. And then, course I had already been–I had already been at Eglin Field, Florida and–which was an experimental air base with the B-36’s
I: What do you–what do you mean by experimentally?
O: Oh, they were
using the B-36 to practice bombing with at–at the Eglin Field area.
O: And they would drop bombs that had sand in it and just enough explosives to blow it up. And they were like three feet in diameter and probably 30 feet long. They were huge bombs and they never were used in the war. The B-36 was never used in the war.
From there, from Eglin Field, Florida I went to Wichita Falls, Texas.
O: And their school was full up there. Airplane engine school was full up. And so they–that’s when they sent me to Santa Maria for mechanics school. And, like I said,
As I completed that, well then they had offered me to go ahead and get my electrical training if I wanted it so I told them I’ll take it. And after graduating in Chanute Field, Illinois in the electrical, I–they sent me to debarkation at Camp Stoneman in California.
I: They had you moving all over the place, didn’t they?
O: Yes, Ma’am. And then–
I: About what time is this by now, what year?
O: It was about ’51.
I: This was 1951?
I: Okay and you enlist–
O: Early part of ’51.
I: And you enlisted in 1950 right after you graduated?
I: Alright, okay, just making sure.
O: And they cut me a records for going overseas. And I thought I was going to Korea,
but I ended up on Okinawa.
I: So, y–you knew what was going on in Korea?
I: You knew that there was a war going on?
I: Had you–when did you first hear about Korea?
O: I first heard about Korea when I was working at the Chevrolet place in Flint,
O: Michigan. And there was a lot of boys getting killed in the Army.
O: You know, and so I decided it would be smart to join the Air Force
And try to go to school.
O: So, I had got all of my school and they had me up to Camp Stoneman for debarkation and I boarded the General Walker and went by water to be in the Korean Conflict.
I: How many days did it take you to reach Korea?
O: It took us about two weeks.
I: Two weeks.
I: And what were you eating while on your way to Korea?
How were the living conditions as far as food and sleeping?
O: While we was on the boat?
O: On the ship. We had real good food. The people took good care of us, feeding us. We had about any kind of food that you would have anywhere. And one day off of Okinawa I believe that they let me know that we was gonna dock the ship
at Okinawa. So, got off the ship and the Air Force picked me up in a six by–they called them six by trucks and we got on–me and other airmen got on the– the six by and they took us to Kadena Air Base which was the main, if not the only Airbase
that the United States had on Okinawa in 1950.
I: And at this time–
I: at this time, what was your specialty?
O: My specialty was mechanic, I was an airplane engine mechanic and I was also an airplane electrical.
I: What is that?
O: You do electrical maintenance on the airplane. When it lands, the pilot will write in his log book if it has a problem. And you read the log book every morning when you go to work.
The trouble sheet. And if one of the B-29’s has a problem, we would go out to the hardstand where the B-29 was located and go to work on it. And we worked out of what they called the specialists shop. Electrician specialists shop on the B-29’s. And we did a little bit of mechanic work, but
mainly my work was on electrical. If the pilot–when–when they would do go to the Republic of Korea to do their bomb runs, they would sometimes have trouble. They might get hit with a little bit of flak, but we flew at night. Pilots opted to do their night flying.
O: And they would
Drop tin foil out of a chute and the Koreans, North Koreans their radar would pick that tin foil up and so their artillery would hit the tin foil and explode at that altitude and the pilot that’s flying the super fortress would be maybe up 1,000 feet higher. So sometimes he would get hit with a little bit of flak from the explosion, but
because of the night raids and the jamming that–radar jamming that we did from the plane by dropping the tin foil we threw their–their artillery off and so it would explode on the fl–on the tinfoil it would drop it out. It was a big roll–a big tape roll of tin foil drop it out a chute and hang onto the end of it. It would just unroll down in there immediately, you know.
O: And they was dropping that quite frequently.
And so all their artillery was automatically picking this up. They couldn’t see us.
I: It was pretty smart.
O: Well that’s the reason for doing the night flying.
O: Because they could–even though we’d done a–we’d do a day raid once in a while, but we’d get hit a little bit maybe.
O: But they still had their guns probably on automatic. Their artillery. And when they shoot, well it, their
automation would pick up the roll of tin foil floating around in the air. So they was missing us a lot. We hardly ever got a –we never got a direct hit while I was there.
O: We had one or two planes that got hit bad enough to land in Atsugi Japan for repairs, but they never knocked one of them out. Sometimes they would have an engine failure, or something like that.
But the B-29 super fortress had four engines and they could get in on two. We had one plane that couldn’t retract its landing light and the landing light was like 8 inches in diameter and it–the best I remember it had 1,000 watts per–per light. And
the–the aircraft commander called back and said he–he couldn’t get his landing light to come up on one side and so he was given permission to re–to salvo his bombs in the ocean and come on back, because they didn’t know whether that that would make him an automatic target or not. But he talked it over with his crew of 12
12 on the crew. They’d have a pilot and a–a co-pilot, an engineer a bombardier, right and left gunner, tail gunner, and it goes on like that. And I think there’s 12 crew. But the crew opted to go ahead and fly the mission and they didn’t even get shot at that night. And I guess they–
Koreans were thought it was an act of God or something when they saw that big light up there they didn’t shoot at it. So–
O: It was something we didn’t expect to get by that easy, but he come back the next morning and it was–they had called me down to the–to the runway and I watched the plane come in. It come in over the ocean and the light was still on.
and it stayed on til he cut the engines off. The prop wash from the engines kept it cool and flying it kept it cool. They tried to shoot it out but the, when they opened the cockpit window well they could–they couldn’t quite see it so they had to fiddle with the engine and shoot where they thought that light was. And they had to be careful not to hit the wing. And so, they gave up on that.
They didn’t want to knock a–knock a hole in the wing.
O: And possibly injure or bust a fuel tank. But we were real fortunate that we didn’t ever get any B-29’s knocked out. We would have o–o–occasional flak damage which would maybe damage the aluminum air craft just a little.
O: If the pilot was real fatigued, he may
drag his tail skid, there’s a tail skid on the back that came down, there was no tail wheel, it had a nose wheel. And they knew that it was unsafe to hit the runway hard with a nose wheel it–two wheels on the nose that come down out on one strut. And if you hit that too hard you could knock it out. And so they would come in and flare a little and maybe hit the runway a little hard
and maybe the tail skid would drag. So every time they would drag the tail skid we would have to change the strut out on the tail skid.
I: Tell me about that process. How long did that take you to change that out?
O: Say again?
I: How long would it take you to fix that and get it changed out?
O: Oh. It took–it took probably about three hours.
O: Because it was hinged and it was about 30 inches long. It was a
pretty heavy piece of–the skid was pretty heavy.
O: In case you drug it and you could have weight on it and it wouldn’t tear it up. But we’d always, the government required us to change the strut out. And they said it cost the government $500 every time we had a tail skid drag.
I: And that was almost every time. Eee.
O: We did have an occasional pilot’s crew and all would come in very tired and fatigued and they may drag
that skid but they never did knock out a nose wheel, so we was lucky.
O: In doing the right thing all the time. And it didn’t–if it didn’t drag even very hard we still had to change it out. $500 didn’t seem like a whole lot, but–and it wasn’t a whole lot.
I: Well, when you’re
I: getting paid $50 or $60
I: you know, a month though,
I: that’s a pretty big–that’s a pretty big gap, so.
O: Yeah. Yeah.
I: So, had you ever–did you ever engage in
any sort of dangerous situations or dangerous predicaments that–
O: No, I had a chance to fly with several missions as spare.
O: And I was, truthfully, I thought that the plane would probably get knocked down and I wouldn’t come back home so, [laughing]
O: I wanted to stay there and be able to work on the B-29’s.
I: How long did–
O: So, so I never did go or I was never in any danger. No one ever tried to bomb us or nothing. They couldn’t get to us.
O: From Korea
they didn’t have the means of reaching Okinawa.
I: How long were you in Korea?
O: I was there a year and a half. I think we had a bout two pretty serious typhoons when I was there.
O: Typhoon is like a–it’s like a hur–like a hurricane. Like we get hurricanes here there’s got a lot of wind covers a lot of miles.
O: They were like that, except they’re called typhoons
on Okinawa. They pack a lot of water, an awful lot of water. Because Okinawa was not very wide at that point and it wasn’t a very long island. The width, at that point, was like two miles wide. And so we, the Air Force AFSC Radio would tell us that we was on our own to take cover.
When the typhoons were coming through. And that’s about the only danger I was ever in.
O: But we were in a typhoon-proof barracks. So we weathered it out good.
I: What was–
O: B–b– barracks.
I: What was your impression of Korea?
O: When you go to work in the morning, we always hired them to clean our rooms and–and make our beds up and stuff like that. They didn’t want you to do any of that.
O: So we just get up, leave our dirty clothes
to go to work and when we come home in the evening, all of our dirty clothes would be washed and ironed, the beds would be made up. And they did that for a pack of cigarettes a week. So, you don’t want to be occupied by another country. Of course, they were real good to us and–and we didn’t have any trouble with them at all.
O: They were Ryukyuan people, they weren’t Japs and they weren’t Chinese.
But they looked a whole lot like the Japanese people. I went to–to suicide cliff where during the occupation of the American military when–after the war on Okinawa, which was a horrible war, the Japanese just wouldn’t hardly give up. And we–I did go up to suicide cliff, where that this one Japanese general ordered his men to jump to their death
over suicide cliff. And I forget how many of them it was, it was hundreds of them though. And they were taught that America was real mean and so they wouldn’t surrender. They were some of them not long before I go there that they had found in those caves that they–they were living in caves in Okinawa because they was scared of us and–
I: So they would–they would rather jump to their own death than–
O: They–they were pretty obedient to their commanding officers and all that.
O: and they all jumped to their death. They–it was–some of them they thought was still on Okinawa when I was there but I never did go up on the North–Northern most part of Okinawa to find out if there was any of them up there or not. Because we was in the Korean War not the Japanese war. The Japanese war
was all over when I was there.
I: Mm-hmm. So –I mean those are obviously some probably unpleasant memories. What are maybe some of the more pleasant memories you have or some rewarding moments you had while being in Korea.
O: I would–would travel occasionally, just a little bit to–to look at the rest of the island.
and I went down to ro–rock climb where the Army camp was a time or two.
O: and I enjoyed my traveling over there. There were some people–some women over there that I got acquainted with that were going to–to college or school on Okinawa and they were from a neighboring
island. And those people learn fast, but they were not advanced real well because of their–they were very poor extremely poor. And I always gave them more than they charged, you know, for what they did for me. But, like I said while ago, they would only charge you like a pack of cigarettes for what they’d do for you.
O: And the amazing part about it was that they knew make your bed up real tight and–and they’d wash and dry and iron your socks and roll them up in a ball and drop them on your bed and they’d bounce.
O: And that’s how tight they’d have the bed made up. And they were really good working people and didn’t charge hardly anything.
I: So, you’d say the relationships you had with the Korean civilians and other troops it was a good relationships?
O: Had good relationship with them.
I: In 2013, we witnessed the 60thanniversary of the signing of the armistice between the U.N., China and North Korea. And there is no other war, in modern history, that has lasted 60 years after an official cease fire. What do you think that needs to be done to end the hostility to put a closure on the war, finally?
O: We need to,
some way or another, get along with those people. And I’m not a politician, so I don’t know what our recourse is except to say that we do need to make it a point to get along with them.
I: Would you support a reunification of North and South Korea if it were possible?
O: I believe would.
I: Do you think it could be possible?
O: I think it could be. I–I compared to some degree, our Civil War that we had here, North and South.
O: And now neighbors fought neighbors, you know. At some point, North of the Mason-Dixon line and South of it, they were against each other. And having a situation like that, that doesn’t heal itself
is a very bad situation. Because you’ve got relatives killing relatives.
O: When they don’t unify, and some way or another I feel like that North Korea and South Korea need to–to try to mend their problems and get along.
O: I appreciate the privilege to come down and–and talk about it.
I: We definitely appreciate you being able to come down here and talk about and to take time out of your busy schedule we really do appreciate it and we thank you for your service tremendously.
[End of Recorded Material]