Waif to Warrior: Child Star To “Chindit” In WWII America
Gideon D. Asche
John was a child of Vaudeville; he became a professional entertainer at the age of four. He was an immediate hit on stage, and when silent films came out, John was cast to co-star with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, then later as a stand-alone child and young adult star in the “Talkies.”
That’s when John took his place in history… the first time – as the world’s first child star. By the age of twelve, John was one of the most popular entertainers in Hollywood and was considered to be the most popular boy in America.
Newspapers reported that “Other children want to go see Babe Ruth – Babe Ruth wanted to visit the Kid.”
MGM signed him to a $500,000 contract – approx. 8 million in 2016 $. Life couldn’t be better for a boy in his late teens. He even married the hottest starlet in movies – Betty Grable.
Then the inconceivable happened – John’s father got killed in a freak accident, and his mother ran off with the family attorney. The couple made a legal claim to all of John’s assets. Since he was a minor, he had no recourse.
John’s mother and her new beau kept John’s fortune. His marriage to Grable began to unravel, and he couldn’t work without parental consent. Broke and abandoned, help came from an old friend and mentor – Charlie Chaplin.
The Tramp offered John enough cash to get him through to his 21st birthday and legal adulthood. He could get his next big role and repay Chaplin when he had the means.
With Chaplin’s help, John filed a lawsuit and won. It was too late for him to recover any of his assets, but the law was changed to require a portion of any child star’s income be put in trust until they were adults. This was the second time John took his place in history – the Law is named for him.
Blackballed by Hollywood studios because of the lawsuit, John couldn’t get a part. He decided to take a different path and leave the movie industry behind. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940.
I’m not sure if John was tired of chewing dirt or just thought he was a better pilot than an infantryman, but he decided to inform the Army that he was a licensed pilot.
In 1940 it was in vogue for the rich to learn to fly and own airplanes – John was no different, and by 20 he was an accomplished Pilot.
He transferred to the Army Air Force as a pilot and when given the opportunity to volunteer for an “Unknown Unit with an Unknown Mission” – John volunteered and was accepted; this was the third time he made his mark on history, albeit anonymously.
John trained as a Glider Pilot and became part of Gen Hap Arnold’s 5318th Provisional Unit (Air) – they were assigned to provide air and logistic support to the “Chindits” – British commandos operating in the rough Burma Theater.
So named for the mythical Griffin like creatures locals believed guarded temples in Burma. Chindits had a reputation for being hard and deadly.
The 5318th would go through a series of name changes with the final designation of 1st Air Commandos. Gen. Arnold described the mission of the Air Commando, initially named Project 9, as having four objectives: facilitate the forward movement of the Chindit columns; facilitate the supply and evacuation of the columns; provide a small air covering and striking force; acquire air experience under the conditions expected to be encountered.
In 1943 John was given a commission and sent to the Pacific to fly support operations for Wingate’s Chindit commandos in the field. From what I can tell, this is the first Special Operations Aviation unit in the U.S. Army – the earliest ancestor to you Night Stalkers. NSDQ!
5 March 1944 would mark the beginning of “Operation Thursday” – the first combat operation involving 1st Air Commandos. Amongst other things, John flew a glider full of Commandos to a tiny clearing in the jungle over 160 Kliks behind enemy lines.
The terrain was too rough to try airborne drops, so tactical plans called for Chindit engineers and Gurkha Riflemen to be delivered behind enemy lines via glider aircraft. They would then clear tiny landing fields for the larger C-64 Norseman and other medium sized aircraft.
Gurkha is a warrior cast of Nepali people, known for legendary courage and skill in battle – they still serve the British Crown today, and it is said that “if a man tells you he isn’t afraid of dying; he’s either a liar or a Gurkha.”
Gliders would be towed two at a time to altitude then be released to continue to their target area and look for a landing site. Prospective landing areas were so small that the full sized CG-4 Waco Gliders were too large, so the smaller TG-5 Training Gliders were used.
On February 15, 1944, a C-47 was towing two gliders when a malfunction occurred and the gliders collided. Four British commandos and three Americans died. The Chindit commander, whose men were killed, sent a message to the Americans. All it said was:
“Be assured that we will go with your boys Any Place, Any Time, Anywhere.”
The phrase “Any Place, Any Time, Anywhere” was adopted as the motto of the 1st Air Commandos and has been used in one form or another by the Special Operations community ever since.
The contemporary version is: “Time on Target – Plus or Minus 30 seconds… anyplace in the world ” – NSDQ
It was a given that the glider had a 50/50 chance of either not finding a suitable landing area or the landing area selected being too rough to land – either case generally ended with the pilot and passengers being killed on impact.
Assuming the landing went well, have you ever wondered what happened to a WW2 combat glider pilot once he delivered his commandos behind enemy lines; his aircraft reduced a broken heap of canvas and tubing by the landing?
He grabbed his rifle and became an infantryman.
Pilots like 1Lt John L. (Jackie) Coogan developed cutting edge and, in my opinion, insane combat techniques. They developed a means by which gliders could be recovered and reused. Minor repairs would be made in the field then, a “Snatch Cable” would be attached to the glider’s tow-hook and suspended between 2 poles.
A “lunatic” flying a C-47 would then make a high-speed pass, at 25’AGL, with a tail-hook hanging. The hook would grab the cable and hopefully snatch the glider into flight and tow it home. It takes very little imagination to see how it might have been a dangerous maneuver, but the men of the 1st Air Commandos developed several other bizarre yet effective means of providing support to Chindits on the ground.
The nature of steep mountains and jungle made line-of-sight radio communications “iffy” at best. The enemy compensated by stringing telephone lines through the jungle.
Pilots from the 1st Air Commandos developed a technique of cutting these communication lines, making communications between distant enemy units almost impossible except by runner.
P-51s were modified to trail a 150’ cable from each end of the bomb racks. Both cables were attached to a steel ring with approx. Two hundred feet of 5/16th-inch steel cable dragging a heavy steel weight at the end – more or less just an anchor hanging from the belly of the bird.
Anyone who was around Army Aviation in the early ’70s remembers the rash of wire strikes we had and knows that anytime an aircraft encounters a wire… the crew usually dies.
1st Air Commandos Pilots would drag their anchor through enemy telephone wires, tearing them to pieces. The thought of hooking up an anchor to my bird and looking for places to drag it through the jungle fishing for wires puts me at about a Pucker Factor of PF-7 or better and makes my palms sweat.
As cutting edge and high-speed, low drag as all that is – the 1st Air Commandos can claim another true first. They flew the first helicopters in combat.
Ltc Alison convinced the Army to let him test the new Sikorsky YR-4, under combat conditions. The YR-4s were no real factor in WW2 combat, but it was the beginning of all Air Assault/Airmobile operations to come – “GARRY OWEN!”
John’s journey took him from Waif to Warrior, but it wasn’t over when the war ended. He made it home and did his best to let the war pass from his memory.
Like most men of his generation, he took his oath of secrecy to heart, and his story remained in the dark until the last years of his life.
He returned to Hollywood but could only land crap roles the likes of D-list Sci-Fi alien cowboy movies. Then in the mid-’60s John got the break he deserved.
Not the shining star A-list role that he had known as a young man but a role he embraced and had fun with. This was the fourth time John made his mark on history and this time on the children of the ’60s and ’70s.
As I look back on those days, way back in my memory, back when my buddies and I would cut school, sneak a few of my dad’s Black Label beers and watch daytime TV – We had no idea we were watching a true Warrior who was finally at peace.
I couldn’t write this without renting and watching at least one episode of the Addams Family… so sing it with me gentlemen – Why should I be the only one singing to myself the rest of the day … Sing it with me.
“♬ They’re creepy, and they’re kooky♫,
♪mysterious and spooky ♩
♬They’re all together ooky, ♬ …”
That’s right – You figured it out; the Warrior I speak of is none other than Uncle Fester
from – “♬ the Addams family♩”
1Lt. John Leslie (Jackie) Coogan, 1st Air Commandos. Burma WW2 – A true American Warrior.