Indiana native Jim Cooper moved to Owensboro, Kentucky early in life and came to Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now WKU) where he enrolled in the AFROTC program. After graduation in 1954, he was commissioned a 2nd Lt. and placed on active duty.
Jim wanted to train in multi-engine aircraft and was selected to fly the KC-97 tanker used at the time by the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Cooper moved up to the then-brand-new jet-powered tanker, the KC-135 in 1958, and operated as an aircraft commander and instructor pilot out of Clinton-Sherman AFB in Oklahoma. Cooper flew with SAC for nearly ten years.
In the fall of 1967, Cooper’s career made an abrupt change. He had been alerted that he was headed to Vietnam to be a Forward Air Controller (FAC). The role of the FAC was to locate enemy targets and serve as the on-scene commander of all airborne strike forces, as well as search-and-rescue coordinator for downed air crewmen. The aircraft used by the FAC was a tiny, single-engine Cessna designated the 01 Bird Dog. In Cooper’s own words, “I went from a 297,000 lb. aircraft to a 2600 lb. aircraft. Heck, I was used to burning 2500 lbs. of fuel just taxiing the KC-135. It was quite a change in missions.”
At Eglin AFB in Florida, Cooper learned the art of target location and how to mark those targets with phosphorous tipped rockets – without a gunsight- and how to direct the delivery of weapons, bombs, napalm, guns, and rockets to those targets.
Major Cooper arrived in Bien Hoa, Vietnam during the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968, and was immediately under fire. He spent several weeks learning local intelligence and tactics and moved to Tay Ninh City to commence his FAC duties. It was a “hot zone” and his base was under almost constant pressure by enemy forces. He flew day and night, directing airborne assets in defense of friendly forces in his sector.
A neighboring Special Forces camp came under attack and Major Cooper and his cadre of young FACs went to assist. The North Vietnamese had concealed an anti-aircraft gun just east of the base and had shot down an F-4 Phantom and a rescue helicopter. Cooper kept on station in a hail of small-arms fire, directing the rescue effort, looking for the gun, and directing the firefight that was defending the base. He located the gun and marked it with a precise shot into the concealed bunker. Cooper radioed, “Hit my smoke!” and bombers destroyed the gun. Later, Cooper met the rescued pilots at the hospital to tell them “We got the gun that got you.” For his action in that battle, Major James Cooper was awarded the Silver Star.
On his return to the United States, he was sent to Flying Safety School and then to Okinawa to run the safety program at Kadena Air Force Base for two years. Back in the U.S., he was sent as Base Safety Officer to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash., where he retired in 1977.
He returned to Bowling Green as an industrial foreman and later joined the faculty at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he taught aeronautical science courses for 18 years and directed the Aircraft Dispatcher program in conjunction with the FAA. He passed away on October 27, 2008.
Lt. Colonel Cooper earned Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, and various theatre and unit decorations.