“Jayhawk” takes flight as WWII aircraft

Posted on Apr 27, 2016 in Alumni News and News

499th Squadron, “Bats out of Hell,” 345th Bomb Group | WWII photo courtesy of George Cooper, e'49

Like so many other veterans, George Cooper has a rich history with the nation. As a flight commander of the 499th Squadron, Cooper was one of seven pilots assigned to the 345th Bomb Group, organized in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1942.

His crew was assigned to a particular aircraft, which he later named “Jayhawk.” He went on to fly “Jayhawk” on all but three of his 55 missions during WWII. The many missions of the 499th Squadron were difficult times as other pilots have described. Cooper’s time with the plane is summed up in Max Ferguson’s book, “Hyperwar: Bats outa Hell Over Biak,” when Ferguson recounts “we said our ‘good byes’ and he [Cooper] climbed the hatch into his old Jayhawk for the last time. I noticed he was in the left seat (first pilot). He taxied to the end of the metal runway, called the tower, revved his plane and started down the runway. It was typical Cooper take-off; he held the plane on the runway to the very end, gained all the speed he could, then roared into the air.”

We chatted with Cooper, e’49, about his experience with the plane and what he’s been up to for the past 60 years.

When was the photo taken, and what was going on in New Guinea at the time?

The photo was taken about June 1943. Japanese forces were trying to move on Port Moresby and had been stopped at Buna and Gona on the north tip of Papua. The battle line was still south of Salamaua. There were Japanese air fields along the north shore of New Guinea, but the main air support and staging bases were what we were attacking. Yet, Dagua, Wewak and Boram and the largest and most powerfully defended, Rabaul on New Britain.

Who is featured in this photo?

My unit was the 499th Squadron, “Bats out of Hell,” 345th Bomb Group. There were four squadrons, each squadron had four Flights A,B,C and D. Each Flight had four aircraft and a 4-7 man crew. I was designated the Aircraft Commander and later Flight Commander of “A” Flight. The men in the photo from left to right are: myself, pilot; Bill Parke, co-pilot; “Bud” Jepson, flight engineer; Harvey Green, radio operator and gunner; and Ralph Stevens, bombardier. The last man on left was my aircraft crew chief, who maintained my aircraft along with maintenance personnel.

Missions flow July -September 1994 | photo courtesy of George Cooper, e'49How did the Jayhawk come to be on the plane?

One of our very talented enlisted maintenance personnel. I don’t recall his name. He later got the job of painting a new bat (with teeth bared to rip the enemy) after we agreed for a Squadron symbol “The Bats Out of Hell.” It [Jayhawk] had 55 mission symbols painted on the left side and two Japanese flags indicating enemy shot down.

What ties do you have to the University?

My ties to Kansas, and in particular to KU, are from my grandparents, George Henry and Helen Marie Lyon Cooper. George came to Kansas from New York looking for prospects in the “New West.” He was in the area where Peabody now is and was part of a team laying out the city of Peabody. My grandmother came from Hastings, Minnesota, to “sit” on land her sister and husband had claimed in the Peabody area. When she passed through Lawrence in 1870, she saw the “Old North College,” then the new KU, and promised that when she had children she would send them to KU.

She had four girls and two boys. Two of her girls chose to go to the Emporia State Teacher’s College, and one married a farmer. She moved the other three children to Lawrence around 1901.  My father enrolled in journalism and took a sabbatical one year to take a reporter’s job in Mexico City. He returned to KU for his senior year and graduated summa cum laude in 1907. He spoke seven different languages, which served him well in one of his several challenges in the import/export business. His sister graduated in music and went on to teach music and write “western” songs, many of which were published.

My grandparents bought 20 acres, which included the Old Windmill, but later sold it to buy a brick building on Vermont Street to create a boarding room. They returned to Peabody after the last child, Gertrude, graduated. My oldest sister, Helen, graduated in 1938, married Charles Ward of Peabody, a KU lawyer. My older brother went 3 years but was caught up in the war. He married Marjorie Runyon, who was also a student at KU. Three of my daughters have gone to KU. Georgeanne, c’68, and Merrilee, g’90, in teaching. My youngest, Laurie Cooper Putthoff, c’91, graduated summa cum laude and went on to get a law degree at Duke. A granddaughter, Jennifer, s’15, received her Masters at KU last year.

Photo courtesy of George Cooper, e'49
How do you stay connected to KU, and do you keep in contact with any other alumni who were in WWII?

I am a Life Member of the Alumni Association, and I contribute to KU Endowment. I follow KU basketball and pray for a football team like we had when I and 4,000 other WWII veterans joined KU. I was not released from active duty until February 1942. The last of my classmates that I have had contact with died several years ago… I have not heard from others since.

What was it like being around the time of the 1952 championship?

My family has always followed KU sports and had our own “home” celebrations. Those early years of Ray Evans and others of our WWII group still seem the best.

Are there any activites that you participated in as a student?

Being married with two children and a third one due as my graduation present, my wife and I did not join in many of the activities. We did join with some other WWII married students and families to celebrate sports.

Cooper also spent many years as an executive for Proctor & Gamble in Kansas City, MO, and as the president of the Tonganoxie Historical Society.

— Cole Anneberg

Tags: , , , , , , , ,