High Desert Hangar Stories: What do Betty Grable and Halloween have in common? An unlikely WWII hero

As Jackie sat in the pilot’s seat in a WACO Glider halfway around the world in Burma, he was pretty much in the worst combat conditions a soldier would ever want to find himself in.

Whether it be the North Atlantic, a Russian steppe in winter or in the year-round stench of Papua New Guinea, let alone the beaches of Guadalcanal, his battlefield was about the most despicable location on the planet in World War II.

Second Lt. Jackie Coogan, Army Air Corps Pilot in China, Burma and India. (Courtesy photograph)

Soldiers in the region near Myanmar dealt with the year-round conditions that never really varied, from monsoon rains that would average up to 200 inches a year, heat exhaustion, infection and diseases that were as likely to kill or disable a soldier as a Japanese bullet.

To compound his problems on this night, he was flying in darkness being towed by another plane, helpless if things were to go wrong over inhospitable jungles, with no location to safely land. With a plane full of British commandos called the Chindits, Jackie was tasked with finding a needle in a haystack (code named “Broadway”) and safely delivering the Chindits 100 miles behind enemy lines, where they could carry out harassment missions to interrupt the communication lines of Japanese units in the area.

On this night, Jackie would become the first pilot to land Allied troops behind enemy lines as a member of the American Air Commandos. He skillfully managed to land his craft in an unsecured area where only local natives were present. In an interview some time later, Jackie stated that when they landed, the locals feared them as gods, especially when they opened up the front of the glider and drove a Jeep out. Two of the natives followed Jackie around and made his bed every night out of banana leaves. For four days, dirty and tired, he helped to build a bigger landing strip so the main force of commandos could land, but as the “god” from the sky he put up with the nasty conditions, as his treatment by the natives was on the plus side!

Jackie also stated that the arrival of the main force took place at night. He would help set out the flare pots to guide in the commandos, who were basically British and Gurhka knife artists. Fifty-seven gliders in total were sent in to carry the force but only 37 of the gliders made it, which only left a fighting force of about 350 men. The cost of the landings was high but, in the end, it was considered a successful mission.

Jackie Coogan on a War Bond tour in 1945. (Courtesy photograph)

Always being the guy that loves to string the reader along, do you wonder why our pilot has been on a first-name basis so far? Do you wonder how the exploits of this pilot tie into our region here in the Antelope Valley? And while we look forward to October and the events famous for this month, could there even be a Halloween/Hollywood connection to this story? Well, when it comes to our glider pilot, his life would not only be defined by his heroic service in World War II, or even the fact that before the war he was married to the World War II pin-up icon Betty Grable, AND that he was one of the biggest child actors of the silent screen. No, to our generation, he’ll always be remembered as the quirky Uncle Fester in the 1960s television classic, The Addams Family.

When a young Jackie Coogan’s Hollywood career peaked when he was six years old, little did he know the trials and tribulations that would have him seeking a direction in life when he found, upon reaching adulthood, that his mother and stepfather had squandered the millions of dollars he’d earned in his youth. Struggling to re-establish his acting career, and in the aftermath of his failed marriage to Grable, Coogan only had one option open that he felt was right for him, that of a soldier. Enlisting in the Army, he became just another flat foot in search of a mission, feeling he was destined to be in the infantry. However, he did have one advantage over the other foxhole mates he was serving with: he had a pilot’s license! However, Jackie did not have a college degree, so it limited his possibilities as a military aviator, but one of those possibilities was that of a glider pilot.

Jackie Coogan with Charlie Chaplin in his breakout role as a child actor in the movie The Kid. (Courtesy photograph)
Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester in the 1960s TV cult classic, The Addams Family. (Courtesy photograph)

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