William E. Cooper MIA/KIA
A Man is Not Dead Until He is Forgotten – The Story of William E. Cooper, by Ray Davidson
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 than fourteen months later LtCol William Earl Cooper’s F105D aircraft would be cut in half by an 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 micromanagement 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 Cooper’s 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 codenamed 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 take off except for the master arm switch.”
“We were now over Laos and headed north to the ‘Hook’ in the Red River northwest of Hanoi. The Hook was a prominent landmark for navigation and timing. From there we would go east to the north end of Thud Ridge, down Thud Ridge to the southeast and then direct to the target. Oak flight was a couple of minutes ahead of Pecan as we headed down the ridge.”
“As the Red River Valley opened out in front of us I could see the real meaning of ‘flak so thick you can walk on it’. We were at 9,000 feet and 540 knots. It looked like every five-level gunner in North Vietnam had been turned loose. The gray puffs of the 37 mm flak were going off at about 6,000 feet so I didn’t have the feeling of imminent danger at that particular moment but I knew damn well we would have to penetrate the flak level sometime. The flak was everywhere you looked across the entire valley.”
“Suddenly, ‘SAM at two o’clock for Oak three’, came over the radio.”
“Number [Oak] Three was the only one with vector gear. [Cooper had vector gear but never turned it on. He was an “old school” pilot and distrusted the new “fangled” electronics.] He [Oak 3] had an SA-2 at his right, two o’clock position that was tracking us. I was on the right wing looking across the formation, which made the SAM site in front of me or slightly to my right. Number [Oak] Three rolled inverted.”
‘LAUNCH, LAUNCH, take it down, take it down’ crackled over the radio.
“I rolled inverted and pulled over five g`s to get the nose 45 degrees low. I rolled upright and pulled again to get back to level flight. The SAM was less than 100 feet directly in front of me with the booster still burning. The lettering and numbers were easily seen as the missile continued straight up. That one was meant for me had it not been for [Oak] threes call.”
“As I pulled up and to the left, I looked at Lead [Oak 1, Cooper’s plane]. Another SAM impacted his airplane at that moment. He had not maneuvered and was still at 9,000 feet heading straight for the target. The large, orange fireball consumed the entire airplane. Didn’t he [Cooper] hear Three’s call for the ‘take it down’?”
‘Two, do you have three in sight?’
‘Get on my wing. We are going on in.’
“Number three picked up responsibility for the formation without any hesitation.”
‘Four’s hit [Pecan 4, Lt Jerry Driscoll].’
‘Four [Pecan 4], you’re on fire.”
“Pecan Four had been hit by flak as the flight entered the valley at the end of Thud Ridge. (Pecan four [would have] nearly seven years to go as a POW before being released.”)
“Oak Three couldn’t get us to the bridge because of the weather. Our bombs would be used to crater a road. I moved the throttle outboard for afterburner and pulled the nose up to match number three as he popped up for his dive bomb pass. It would be a left roll in for a pass to the northwest. We had passed within five miles of the bridge but couldn’t get to it.”
“I topped out at 12,000 feet and rolled left and down to reach a 45-degree dive. Coming out of afterburner I tried to hold the airspeed at 450 knots. It seemed eternally slow and I felt a naked vulnerability as I maintained a constant flight path to a bomb release altitude at 4,500 feet. If the gunners are any good at all they are going to be tracking me now. Oak Three and Four were below me and to the right.”
‘Come off north and get back into the hills.’
“Oak Three directed the egress to get out of the heavy threat. I dropped the bombs, selected afterburner, and turned hard to the north. Jinking left and right I didn’t look around until I was in the hills.”
‘Oak Two, do you have Three?’
Negative. I think I am out in front of you.
‘Head west, head west.’
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.
It was April 1966. The Secretary of Defense had said we would lose 576 airplanes in Southeast Asia by the end of the next fiscal year (July 1967). He missed it by three. We would lose 111 F-105s in 1966 alone. The Bac Giang Bridge was destroyed by F-105`s on May 5, 1966. The bridge would be repaired many times over. The bridge would be destroyed many times over before the war ended. Many more planes and pilots were lost at the Bac Giang Bridge”
Bob Krone shared a trailer at Korat with Cooper and became Squadron Commander after Cooper’s 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 email@example.com.
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 Cooper’s 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.
Cooper’s 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.
- 7/13/1939 Enlisted U.S. Army
- 9/16/1940-11/9/1942 Officer Candidate School
- 11/9/1942 Transferred to Army Air Force
- 11/1942-4/1944 Pilot Training
- 1944-1945 China, Pacific Theater (B-24 Liberator)
- 2/3/1946 Enlisted, Air Force Reserve
- 2/3/1951-8/1956 Active Duty
- 8/1956-6/1959 53rd Fighter Day Squadron (53rd Tactical Fighter Squadron), Bitburg, Landstuhl, Germany/Ramstein AB, West Germany
- 6/1959-3/1960 3556th Flying Training Squadron, IP, Perrin AFB, TX
- 3/1960-7/1963 4138th Strategic Wing, Operations Officer, Turner AFB, GA
- 7/1963-7/1964 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron/831st Air Division, a469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, George AFB, CA
- 7/1964-11/1965 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, McConnell AFB, KS
- 11/1965 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Commander, Korat Royal Thai AFB, Thailand (F-105)
- 4/24/1966 Missing-in-Action (Declared dead on February 9, 1978, Accounted for: December 22, 2014)
Awards & Decorations
Air Force Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster
Air Medal with 7 Oak Leaf Clusters
Military & Civilian Education
- Officer Candidate School
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 F-105s. In another of the flights was 1Lt. Jerry D. Driscoll. As the first flight approached the target, Cooper’s F-105D 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.
Witnesses did not see Cooper eject and believed he went down with the aircraft, but there was doubt enough that the Air Force determined him Missing in Action rather than killed.
Just afterward, 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 captured.
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 the scores of “discrepancy cases” it is felt can be resolved.
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 was married and had five children.
Jerry D. Driscoll graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1963 and was promoted to the rank of Captain during his captivity.
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.