*Editor's note: This is the first installment in a series of articles by Waxahachie resident Perry Giles that highlights local veterans and their bravery. The articles conclude with the Ellis County Veterans Ceremony on Nov. 11. The first article is a two-part special. Each article will run on Sunday.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
My name is John G. Cornwell and I grew up in Waxahachie. When I was a kid, we lived on Virginia Street, but later we moved to the 400 block of North Rogers Street.
My parents, Irvin and Lula Cornwell, were outgoing and good natured folks. They were well thought of around town and we had many a visitor over to the house. Dad owned the Ford dealership here in town, the Cornwell Motor Company.
I was active in the Boy Scouts, played cornet in the high school band, and I also played guard on the Indian football team. We were members of the First Baptist Church just around the corner from our house.
Some of my friends say that I am a regular lady’s man, but I’m not so sure about all that. My buddies and I did enjoy going to the country club for a summer swim in the lake.
About six months after Pearl Harbor I signed up with the Army Air Corps. With a deferment in hand, I went off to college in the fall of ’42 at the University of Texas. It was exciting times, with more students there at college than the whole population of Waxahachie.
After a year in college, I was called up and reported to basic training. Then it was on to flight school, my heart was set on being a pilot. It just seemed like the place to be as far as I was concerned.
I went through pilot training at Omaha, Nebraska and at Stockton, California. Later they sent me to Roswell, New Mexico to train in the B-29 bomber, and then it was on to Replacement Training School in Clovis, New Mexico.
Our new plane, the B-29 Superfortress, was something to behold, only the most advanced and expensive aircraft ever built. It was the biggest, fastest and best bomber in the Air Corps.
She was a dream to fly and it seemed to me like the very weapon that could turn this war around. I did begin to wonder if I would spend this whole war in training... Not much to do here in the New Mexico desert.
Finally we departed, flying over the South Atlantic transport route. Leaving Morrison Field in southern Florida, we flew south through the Caribbean to Natal, Brazil. From there we crossed the South Atlantic to West Africa arriving in Marrakesh, Morocco. Then we flew on eastward through Algeria and Egypt before arriving at Karachi, Pakistan. After the two week journey, we finally arrived at our new home, the Chakulia Air Field in eastern India.
I was a 2nd Lieutenant Co-Pilot of a replacement aircrew. We arrived to join the 45th Bomb Squadron of the 40th Bombardment Group and we would soon be split up and used to fill openings in other aircrews as the brass saw fit.
As a replacement pilot, I never knew from day to day if I was flying or not, my job was to always be ready.
It was February 1, 1945.
I was fairly well worn out from the trip and it took a few days to get myself adjusted. The conditions here were a bit of a shock to the system. It typically got up to 115 degrees or higher in the afternoon.
On 20 February 1945, we received a visit from Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the commander of the Southeast Asia Allied Command. He mingled with the men and chatted with many of us before he made a short speech. All were impressed with the informality and the lack of ceremony.
Admiral Mountbatten expressed pride in being the first theater commander to be given operational control of the B-29 bomber. He congratulated the squadron on recent missions to Bangkok and Singapore, and he went on to discuss the missions that we could be expecting. His visit did much to quiet criticisms about us being under British command.
I went on my first combat mission on 17 March against Japanese supply dumps north of Rangoon, Burma. I flew with Captain Lanzoni, an experienced combat pilot. Everything when smooth enough, but I worried for the whole 6-hour 40-minute mission about screwing up.
Whoever picked this place for a base really fouled up. There were frequent monsoon rains and the heat was so intense that no B-29 was allowed to take off between 1000 and dusk for fear that the engines would catch fire.
The living quarters had grass roofs that let water pour through, so we were either flooded out or stifling in the heat. There were mostly “C” rations and buffalo meat to eat, plenty of mosquitoes and several cases of dysentery and malaria around the base.
My second mission came five days later on the 22nd against the same target near Rangoon, flying this time with Lieutenant Hug. As a replacement co-pilot, I flew just about every mission with a different crew, wherever I was needed.
There were missions to Thailand, Formosa and Indonesia, hitting targets such as railroad yards, iron works, oil storage tanks and naval bases. These missions were very long and it seems like nearly every time one of our planes is lost, many times because of engine failure, 12 men lost.
For several months our bomb group had been flying missions against the Japanese from some forward airfields that they had set up inside China. The problem was that all supplies, fuel, spare parts and bombs had to be flown in with our B-29s over the Himalayan Mountain range.
It took six supply missions over “The Hump” in order to fly just one bombing run against Japan. This had turned out to be far too costly in men and material so it had been stopped just about the time that I got here.
But word has spread that the Marines and the Army have captured some airfields in the Mariana Islands that are within striking distance of Japan. So that’s it, we will soon be leaving and I won’t be missing this place.
Easter Sunday and April Fools Day fell on the same day. Many of us attended church service while others were busy with their usual pranks.
During the month of April, there were no combat missions flown as the base prepared for our big move. The quality of the chow slipped to the point that fellows were calling our mess hall “The Gag and Vomit.”
With these sacred cattle that wander over our base at will, we thought seriously about having a non-regulation barbeque. There is also an abundance of snakes and scorpions here, not to mention all the other nasty insects.
On Friday the 13th, we were all shocked to hear the news that the President had died. The news was so unbelievable that for many it was only confirmed by the sight of the flag flying at half mast over the operations building. Regardless of one’s politics, this was a loss that we were not prepared for.
Planes started leaving for the Marianas early on the morning of the 20th. Two days later at 0630, I flew out of there on course for a forward airfield at Luliang, China, and none too soon as far as I was concerned.
Arriving at about noon, our planes were refueled and checked over but we were held up there because of bad weather over the Pacific. There weren’t enough tents and cots, so many of us had to sleep on board our planes. The chief enemy here turned out to be boredom.
Four days later after finally getting the go-ahead, we lined up in a long row of shiny silver B-29s taking off on a 10,000-foot gravel runway. All that prop wash kicked up an enormous dust cloud. A relatively awesome sight, with about 150 thousand horsepower in the hands of all us twenty-year-olds.
As we slowly gained altitude, the mountainous terrain seemed to rise up with us, but by flying between the hills, we made it safely through and set course for the distant island of Tinian. It was still more than 3000 miles away.
Crossing over enemy held territory and skirting around Hong Kong, you could sense a slight change in the crew’s demeanor. We were now closer than ever to the war and one could just feel some unexplainable difference.
We flew through the night in clouds that extended up to 20,000 feet in some places. There was occasional rain and a light icing, but little turbulence. Now and then the full moon could be seen in breaks in the clouds and the Southern Cross would appear low on the horizon.
With the constant drone of our four 18-cylinder engines, the long night passed and the sun slowly rose almost straight ahead, illuminating a vast expanse of shimmering sea below us.
At 0730 there appeared before us some small green irregular shaped islands. On closer inspection, there were numerous long white runways and dozens of ships anchored nearby in the dark blue waters. Making a wide turn around the island, we waited our turn to land.
In a long descending stream of planes, we landed one after another at very short intervals. Once on the ground, we were directed to our own circular hardstand made of crushed coral. I noticed quite a few ground personnel and Seabees standing nearby that I presume had turned out to watch us come in.
Until my feet actually hit the ground, I didn’t realize how tired I was. The glare from all the crushed coral was so bright that I reached for my sunglasses. We hitched a ride over to our quarters that were located about midway on the west coast of the island.
The Seabees had already turned this place into some operation. There were tents set up for us flanked by cane fields and scattered underbrush. The tents had wooden frameworks and wood floors along with a nice sea breeze from the nearby coastline.
Best of all, the mess hall was serving good American food, including real fresh butter that would actually melt on hot food. It was agreed by all that this represented a tremendous improvement over the Army’s old axle grease type.
After a few weeks, I moved into an officer’s Quonset hut. We liberated some lumber and added on a front porch and strung up a canvas for shade. Then we scrounged up some spare chairs and modified them for lounging purposes. It was no doubt luxury accommodations in comparison to India.
There were classes given on the topics of “Hot Weather Operation,” “Aircraft Recognition,” “Target Identification,” “Ditching At Sea,” “Surviving in a One Man Life Raft,” “Air-Sea Rescue,” and “Prisoner of War Indoctrination.”
Some of these subjects really got one to thinking, and there were troubling rumors going around about the treatment of our flyboys that had been shot down and captured.
The news of VE Day in Europe gave us a considerable boost in morale. It is widely felt by most everyone that we were fighting a forgotten war here in the Pacific, now we knew that the U.S. would throw everything we had against the Japanese.
*To be continued next Sunday.