Dennis Okerstrom of Independence is a professor of English at Park University in Parkville. Okerstrom, whose doctorate is in history and English, is a licensed pilot. His book “Project 9: Birth of the Air Commandos in World War II” is about a secret team that was a forerunner to modern special forces units. Okerstrom will speak at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch at 6:30 p.m. June 9 with Dick Cole, 98, one of the original commandos who participated in the first raid on Burma. This conversation took place in Okerstrom’s office at Park University.
Who started Project 9?
A British general named Orde Wingate. Wingate was kind of an outlier. A lot of his fellow officers hated him, and enlisted men loved him. He preferred to organize guerrilla raids and do things in a vastly different way, and they worked. So the higher-ups in government loved him and were always decorating him with medals.
Burma (now Myanmar) was the forgotten theater in World War II. The Japanese took Rangoon (capital of Burma at the time) early in 1942. Churchill asked Wingate to design a plan for a raid into Burma using the Army Air Forces, and that became Project 9.
If you were a military general, and you made a list of places you would choose to fight a war, Burma would be very last on the list.
The terrain is awful. The whole country is full of triple-canopy jungle and deep gorges, and there are four rivers that flood continually. But Wingate thought if he could invade Burma with ordinary Tommies (British soldiers), he could train them what to do. The problem was keeping the troops supplied and getting the wounded and the dead out.
The idea was, they were going to take Wingate’s men and put them in huge gliders on the back of C-47 transport aircraft. They flew into remote jungle clearings late at night and landed with no lights.
How did that work out?
They ended up wrecking most of the gliders, but most of the men survived the landings. Ultimately they were able to get close to 10,000 men in. Then they would snatch gliders back out at night, using a long rope and two poles with flashlights at the top. An airplane with a specially designed hook would fly down, snag it and pull it up with full power.
How were the men chosen for the Air Commandos?
It was less about exceptional strength or conditioning and more about being able to do multiple jobs. If you could play the piano or use a typewriter or fix cars, you were likely to get picked.
Of the 523 original members of the Air Commandos, 300 were pilots. That’s an incredibly high ratio. Today in a squadron, you’d have, say, 1,200 people and 25 pilots.
One of the pilots was Jackie Coogan, a child movie star who was in “The Kid” with Charlie Chaplin and later played Uncle Fester on “The Addams Family.” Another pilot was Buddy Lewis, an all-star third baseman for the Washington Senators.
Another one was Dick Cole, who is coming to Kansas City to talk with me at the library event.
Where is Dick Cole from?
Originally Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of aviation, where the Wright brothers were from. He became a pilot and flew as Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot in the Raid on Tokyo in 1942. Then he stayed behind and became one of the Hump pilots who flew supplies over the Himalayas into China. That was more dangerous statistically than flying bomber raids over Berlin — about 600 aircraft and crews were lost. Cole survived and was selected for the Air Commandos.
Today he’s 98 and sharp as a tack. He lives in the Texas Hill Country in a town called Comfort. He is the most unassuming guy you’ll ever meet. He is of that generation that says, “I’m no hero, I was doing my job,” and never talks about what he did.
I’m working on an autobiography of him. He kept telling me no at first, because he is so modest, but I convinced him if he would let me write his story, it would be a tribute to the kids he served with who never came home and whose story has never been told because the mission was secret.