INTERVIEW WITH GARRY COOPER
It is not everyday that a person in a flying career, can go from flying over cold snow and water at one end of the world, to another where dense jungle, tropical thunderstorms and humidity saps at the very ability to fly. Neither does every person who grows up to eventually join the RAAF and ends up becoming highly respected by a foreign country while conducting his job in a dangerous warzone. It is a rare event and most people don’t know of these RAAF individuals due to various reasons. Luckily one of these highly respected individuals that can learn about is Garry Gordon Cooper.
Garry was born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1938. After completing school in the 1950s, he worked for a few years with the Royal Aero Club of South Australia. At the same time he was learning to fly and gained his CPL by the age of 19. His long career of flying then started with the Flying Doctor Service and then moved onto a position with the Gibbes Sepik Airways in New Guinea in 1957, where he accumulated 3,500 hours on a variety of aircraft in New Guinea.
RAAF CAREER BEGINS
Garry decided he wanted to join the RAAF as his next career move. He joined up in April 1960 as a cadet. By studying hard and applying he previous flying skills he showed he had what it takes to become a RAAF pilot. He came out as the top graduate of the 39 Pilots course in June 1961. Tho he was keen to become a fighter pilot it would be a few years before he would get to do this work, meanwhile he was trained in further skills. His first Air Force posting was to the School of Air Navigation at East Sale in Victoria.While based at East Sale, he learnt to fly over the next few years a variety of famous aircraft types such as – Douglas C-47 Dakota transport, CAC Winjeel trainer, CAC Canberra. This posting to East Sale was planned but duration was spent on two tours to the Antarctic flying Beaver equipped with skis and floatplanes. Some funny stories occurred down in the wilds of Antarctic it seems.
In May 1963 he was posted to RAAF Williamtown and began to fly the frontline fighter of the RAAF – the CAC Sabre. He joined 2 OCU on a conversion course and then qualified for flying of the Sabre jet with 77SSQN. The North American Aviation Sabre was a post WW2 jet fighter development and entered service in 1949. It was thrown into battle very soon after in the Korean war which went from 1950 to 1953. The USAF Sabre jets flew in Korea for 2.5years, where they earned much praise and grew into a versatile airframe. This war was one reason the RAAF acquired the Sabre and had it license built in Australia, entering service in 1955 and lasted until 1970 in frontline service.
RAAF DEPLOYMENTS TO ASIA
January 1964 found Garry flying in Malaysia with the Sabre on overseas deployment. This deployment was into a hot and humid climate and which could take its toll on people and machines. While in Malaysia he also flew the CAC Canberra and C-47 Dakota on missions. At that time the RAAF had several detachments to Singapore, Borneo and Thailand depending upon where the activities were. During this tour Garry was temporarily deployed to Thailand with 79 SqQN flying the CAC Sabre for base security at Ubon RTAFB during the early stages of the Vietnam war.
By February 1966 Garry returned back to Australia where he undertook an early Mirage conversion course with 2 OCU. This was done flying the Mirage IIIO. He flew with 75 and 76 SQNs out of RAAF bases at Williamtown and Darwin, as he gained experience on the new delta winged jet.
In April 1968 a request for RAAF pilots interested to learn the art of Forward Aircraft Control – FAC work was announced. The FACs role were required to guide aircraft strikes and judge for BDA after a strike. The USAF was heavily using FACs in the Vietnam War and the RAAF additionally expressed the desire to give some of their aircrew training in art of FAC work by using exchange postings to the USAF FAC/TASS units in the various Vietnam bases.
Garry was posted by the USAF to 19 TASS at Bien Hoa. He was assigned as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) with call sign Tamale 35. He flew the O-1 Cessna Bird Dog mainly in his tour followed by the Rockwell OV-10 Bronco in the last two weeks of his tour. Almost immediately upon arriving at Bien Hoa, Garry was set to work as a USAF FAC assigned to the 9th Division, US Army.
He started performing amazing sorties with outcomes that made people take notice of this skilled Aussie. To give an insight to Garry’s work as a FAC, below are a few selected BDA report outcomes of his work –
- 5 May 1968 prevented Binh Phuoc army base being over-run by enemy forces saving numerous US lives.
- 10 May 1968 credited with killing 230 enemy and saving A and C Companies, 5th Bn, 60th Inf who were ambushed and taking heavy casualties.
- 11 May 1968 saved numerous US lives with accurate bombing around the “Y” Bridge in Saigon during the second Tet Offensive. On this occasion his aircraft received severe battle damage
- 21 May 1968 located and killed six enemy with air strikes. On this occasion Cooper received a wound to the hand and damage to his aircraft.
- 6 June 1968 engaged with artillery and air strikes, a large VC force massing east of Bihn Phuoc Army Base. Credited with killing four enemy and an estimated 400 buried in tunnels, this prevented the attack on Bihn Phuoc saving numerous US lives.
- 10 June 1968 engaged with air strikes, an estimated force of 500 VC in bunkers.
- 18 August 1968 saved Colonel Robert E. Archer, Commander 2nd Bde, 9th Inf Div after their helicopter was shot down and killed 12 enemy in ground engagement. Medal of Honour recommended.
- 24 September 1968 protected a US Company at night with air strikes and artillery.
- 04 October 1968 killed 139 enemy with air strikes removing a considerable threat to US lives.
The final analysis in his Vietnam FAC tour shows how air power can turn the tide thus showing why the task of a FAC are critical –
Enemy Killed 1034 Bridges destroyed 7 Sampans destroyed 153
Structures destroyed 316 Bunkers destroyed 769 Troops in contact support 97
Air strikes by day 293 Air strikes by night 37
Being a FAC wasnt easy and these 2 photos below show why – Garry’s AFH-1 flight helmet took a enemy rifle round through the upper section of the visor housing, penetrated the helmet shell and foam liner before exiting the shell ….. just missing impact on skull by mms.
THE DISPUTED MEDAL OF HONOUR MISSION
As can be seen by this record, Garry’s role was dangerous with many rounds hitting the aircraft he flew and he receiving serious wounds as well. His combat service (seen above) was most impressive and one particular mission culminated in a mission where he was duly recommended for the US Congressional Medal of Honour.
A brief record of his MOH conduct is as followed –
On a mission on 18 Aug, 1968, Garry was cited by M/Gen Julian J. Ewell for a US military Congressional Medal of Honor in conducting his duties above and beyond the required tasks in his military role. The mission was flying near Rach Kien in SouthVietnam in support of the 1st Brigade, 9th Infantry Division. On this day a Hiller UH-23 helicopter was being used as FAC platform with a pilot and the Brigade Commander Col Robert E. Archer, directing 12th TFW F-4 strikes against the VC attacking the unit. Garry was also aboard as an ALO.
While on the mission, the Viet Cong fired at the helicopter and the pilot was hit in the head and the Brigade Commander was wounded. Garry took overpowered the incapacitated pilot of the UH-23, cut the engine switches after the crash and carried the wounded Brigade Commander from the aircraft. Both men then had to spend the night in enemy territory.
Unfortunately he had to leave the pilot in the UH-23. In the process of keeping Robert and himself alive, Garry’s position was assaulted by the Viet Cong. Garry managed to defend his position and in doing so killed 10 Viet Cong. After this struggle he was out of ammunition and was down to “escape and evasion” skills as trained to most military aviators. As they had not been seen shot down by the Army a rescue helicopter was not scheduled but a gunship stumbled on them early next morning.Due to still been surrounded by the Viet Cong, Garry had to fend off another attack and kill two more VC before they could be safely aboard the rescue helicopter.
TOUR OF DUTY ENDS IN VIETNAM
Garry continued flying FAC sorties until his tour finished in late 1968. Garry returned to Australia in a very different way than what he was expecting. On his flight to Vietnam in 1968, he flew over in a Qantas 707. In departing Vietnam, he returned in a RAAF C-130 Hercules strapped in the rear fuselage with Australian military war dead in coffins surrounding him. This was a contrast that he never expected and really highlighted the differences war makes.
BACK IN AUSTRALIA
After the amazing tour of Vietnam, Garry rejoined the RAAF Mirages based at Williamtown with 77 Squadron in January 1969. Additionally while based at Williamtown he flew the Winjeel again but in an entirely new role. The RAAF had by now seen the useful abilities of FACs at work in Vietnam and decided to set up a unit to train pilots and army personnel to liaise better in the field in war time. Garry was posted to 4 Flight, where they developed and practised the art of FAC.
(The history of 4 Flight was the RAAF flew CAC Wirraways and Boomerangs as Army Co-operation support aircraft in WW2 thru PNG in supporting the Australian Army operations. By the mid 1960s the RAAF were using the CAC Winjeels as platform to train FACs. Fast forward to July 2009, where the RAAF further developed FAC training as it has become a serious requirement in modern warfare. The Forward Air Control Development Unit was merged into the newly reactivated 4 SQN to operate the PC-9 in the FAC role with 4 aircraft assigned. They also train ground based FACs called JTAC.)
FINSIHES RAAF SERVICE AND TAKES UP CIVIL FLYING
Garry Cooper resigned from the RAAF in October 1969 after a somewhat brief 9 1/2 years but a very busy and challenging time. Since the Vietnam war, Garry has become a legend in the US and has gained much respect for his services in Vietnam. It was only in 1975 that Garry was to learn that he was put forward by the US commander of the unit he saved in Vietnam, for a potential nomination for the US highest medal to a military person – a Congressional Medal Of Honour.
Due to much debate and internal disputes back in Australia, the medal’s request was not given much interest by the Government and has remained until this day unsupported sadly due to restrictions imposed. Many people in US and Australia felt Garry should not be denied this medal (or its equivalent, the Victoria Cross) as he put his life on the line and deserves to be rewarded for his actions. There is still a hope this rare medal will one day be given to Garry. It could may still happen if enough interested is generated to reopen the case and have it approved. In his travels to the USA, he has also met high ranking US department officials such as Secretary of Defense Hagel.
Garry has written a book about his experiences as a FAC in Vietnam – “Sock it to ’em Baby” by Allen and Unwin which was published in 2006. See his htrilling book here http://www.sockittoembaby.com/ .
Garry took up civil flying after Vietnam and he flew for Ansett Airlines until 2000. He still flies at age 78 and has flown over the last few years a variety of warbirds such as a Zero (which was a T-6 modified into a Zero for the film, Tora Tora Tora) and FAC aircraft such as Cessna O-1 Birdog and O-2 Skymaster previously owned by warbird owner Randal McFarlane.
CAREER TYPES FLOWN
Garry has flown in his military and civilian career over 24,500 hours in a large variety of aircraft such as the Tiger Moth, Auster, Zlin, Chipmunk, Norseman, Junker 52, Zero, Winjeel, C-47, Vampire…….
……….Ryan, Dragon, 6 types of Cessna, Canberra, F-86, Mirage, O-1, O-2, OV-10, B767, B747, L-1011, B707, B737 and Convair 880.
Phil was able to meet Garry briefly in 2009 at a fly in event in Queensland, where Garry was flying Randal’s O-1 at the time.
DUAN thanks Garry Cooper for allowing this insight to his military and civil aviation career to be shared with others.