Ilion native recalls fighter pilot experiences
Jake Cooper

Jacob (Jake) Cooper - Fighter Pilot - Ilion, NY
Jacob (Jake) Cooper
World War II Fighter Pilot

Cheektowaga, N.Y. — It’s easy for many veterans’ stories to be lost over time, but thanks to the efforts of Ilion native Jacob “Jake” Cooper, the story of the 493rd Fighter Squadron in World War II may be as close as the local library.

Cooper, who now resides in the Buffalo area, wrote and edited “The 493rd Fighter Squadron in World War II,” telling about the history of the 493rd during World War II and including some of his own first-hand experiences as well as those of other members of the squadron.

Contacted by email, Cooper said he has “many fond memories about growing up in Gimmickville, in Ilion’s east end. One does not stand out. I remember: Summer vacation when we rarely wore shoes; walking along the Erie Canal Tow Path to our swimming hole in Mohawk’s Fulmer Creek; sandlot baseball at Remington Park; pickup football up in Russell Park and especially the old gang: Bob Murphy, Ron Unsinn, Herb Mead, Bob Lewis, Harold MacNeill, Dick Morris, Jim and Gord Bowman, Ed Plunkett, John Mullen and Jack Winslow.”

Jacob (Jake) Cooper - Fighter Pilot - Ilion, NY
Jim Watson, of Margaret Street in Herkimer, left, and Jacob Cooper are shown at Aloe Army Airfield, Victoria, Texas, after completing pilot training. They had just been commissioned as second lieutenants and awarded their silver pilots wings.

Cooper’s parents had emigrated from Friesland in the Netherlands in the early 1900s. “I had four sisters and three brothers, all first generation Americans,” he said.

“After graduating from high school I had no plans for the future,” Cooper said. “It was obvious to all that we would soon be joining the Allies in their efforts to defeat the Axis Powers who were bent on ruling and enslaving the world. When the opportunity came in early 1942 to become an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army, I took the examination and was sworn in shortly thereafter.

“After qualifying for aviation cadet training I went to Albany in August 1942 where I was sworn in as a private, then called to active duty in January 1943. After completing training in November 1943, I was awarded the coveted silver pilot wings and commissioned a second lieutenant.”

Jacob (Jake) Cooper - Fighter Pilot - Ilion, NY
Jim Watson, left, and Jacob Cooper are shown at the squadron’s fighter airfield in England, around May 1944.

Cooper flew 98 missions in a P-47 Thunderbolt. He flew his first mission on May 23, 1944, while stationed at Ibsley in southern England. Most of the missions flown at that time traveled across the English Channel into northwest France, to dive-bomb bridges and German positions and strafe personnel and military equipment in support of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy.

Cooper, who now resides in the Buffalo area, wrote and edited “The 493rd Fighter Squadron in World War II,” telling about the history of the 493rd during World War II and including some of his own first-hand experiences as well as those of other members of the squadron.

Jim Watson, of Herkimer, was also assigned to the 493rd Fighter Squadron. He and Cooper had been friends since basic flying school in Texas. By late June, the squadron moved its headquarters to an apple orchard in Normandy, where they lived in tents not far from the front. Cooper also noted in his book that due to logistical problems, food supplies for the squadron were low. The individual K-Rations were not too popular and Watson was named assistant mess officer. “Given a Jeep with a trailer and a couple of men, Jim led forays to the beachhead at night and was able to scrounge larger rations and bring them back to base,” said Cooper.

Cooper’s plane was struck in the left wing and flap area while skip-bombing some tanks near St. Lo. “They said this was only light flak, being only 20 mm, but it was heavy enough for me,” he wrote. He also blew a tire on one landing, but said, “no one made a big deal about it.”

When the Battle of the Bulge began in December, the squadron was stationed in St. Trond. Planes were grounded the first day of the battle due to the weather. On the second day though, planes were in the air again and Watson was shot down by a German pilot and killed.

Despite this blow, there was no time for a break. Cooper was soon busy flying missions. A mission Cooper flew on Jan. 25, 1945, earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation states “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.” Cooper flew his last combat mission on April 19.

“After World War II, I married Marion Day of Ilion,” said Cooper. They had two children, James Michael of Tampa, Fla., named after his close friend Jim Watson, and Scott Jacob who lives near Lockport with his wife, Maria. They have three daughters, Amy, Megan and Allison.

When he returned home on leave after the war, Cooper went to pay his respects to Watson’s father. After visiting with him, he asked about personal items he had sent home in Jim’s footlocker before the group left England. The two went to the attic to look at the unopened footlocker. “There was a note Jim sent to his father, stating, ‘Dad, I’ll probably be home before this ...’ I never felt so bad,” Cooper wrote. Mr. Watson had also lost his younger son, Bernard, who was killed fighting in the Mediterranean Theater.

About 20 years after the war, Cooper started looking for his former comrades to organize a reunion. “After five years I had located 250 of former squadron members,” he said. “We had our first reunion in St. Louis in 1970 and have met every year since, I was president of our association and was contacted by a publisher of military histories who suggested such a project for our squadron. After five years of gathering information and memories of the squadron members, the book I wrote and edited was published in 1996.”

Jacob (Jake) Cooper - Fighter Pilot - Ilion, NY
“The 493rd Fighter Squadron in World War II”, by Ilion native Jacob L. Cooper, was published in 1996 and is available through the Mid-York Library System.

Reproduced by Aileen Carney Sweeney,
with permission of The Herkimer Evening Telegram - Source is The Herkimer Evening Telegram

Last Updated - December 6, 2012