At 90, Vet's Parachute Jump to Honor WW II Pals
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
At 90 years of age, one World War II fighter pilot still has another flight in front of him.
On Saturday morning, retired Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Ed Cottrell will report to Knollwood Air Field - you now know it as the Moore County Airport - at 10 a.m.
At 11:15 a.m., he'll parachute for the first time, jumping in tandem with a U.S. Army Golden Knight whose previous nonagenarian partners have included former President George H.W. Bush.
"This came about in a funny way," Cottrell said Thursday morning. "I went over to interview with Nick Reed, and met his dad who was in Special Forces and a parachutist. We started talking."
The interview appears in Reed's book "World at War: First Hand Accounts from America's Greatest Genera-tion." Reed will enter N.C. State the same day as Cottrell's jump and will miss seeing it.
"His dad and I were talking and I said, 'Man, I would love to jump - the one thing I'd like to do in memory of all the guys we lost would be to jump out of an airplane to celebrate my 90th birthday.' He said, 'Let me make a call.'"
Retired Army Special Forces Lt. Col. Jim Reed knew whom to call. A month ago, Cottrell's phone rang with attention to orders: Aug. 11.
"Danny Briggs called about a month ago and said Aug. 11," Cottrell said. "I said, 'Super. That's great!'"
Cottrell had had basic parachute training as part of P-47 pilot training in 1944.
"They had us jump off a 20-foot tower to teach us how to roll when we landed," he said. "We always had one on when we flew, because we sat on it. We knew it was there. The first P-47 I flew you had to pull the canopy back by hand. The next model had an ejection button. If you had to get out, it blew the canopy off and out you went."
They went through training pretty fast. Cottrell got his wings in April 1944, and was on his way to Europe.
Right after D-Day Cottrell was in France doing dive-bombing and strafing missions, and occasionally acting as bomber escorts, in support of the 9th Army on the ground.
"Our job was to clean out tanks and support troops that got pinned down and couldn't move," he said. "Sometimes we would come back from a mission and find bullet holes all over the planes."
His airfield was the closest to Bastogne - about 10 miles away after the Battle of the Bulge.
"One time we were coming off the runway, and still pretty low; and as we started to go up, some ME-109s came in and attacked us," Cottrell said. "One came in from the right and shot me right where the wing joins the fuselage. Oil went all over, and the plane began to drop."
His engine started back up. Cottrell told his squadron commander he'd have to head back and didn't know if he could make it or not. He looked out and saw one Messerschmitt on his right, another on his left.
"They fell back and crisscrossed behind me," he said. "Usually, when a plane crosses behind you, they would blast you out of the sky."
Something else happened. The enemy pilots came up beside Cottrell in formation and flew escort all the way back to the German border.
"When we got over the border, they gave me the OK hand signal, and peeled off," Cottrell said. "They could have easily shot me down, but they didn't."
He reached his airfield, but coming in, his engine suddenly quit.
"I had to belly the plane in - slid down the runway with sparks flying everywhere - I was a lucky guy," he said. "The bad part about that day was that my very good friend was shot down."
He and Ted Smith had trained together on P-47s in Utah, had gone through flight school together.
"I saw him go in," Cottrell said. "I was pretty busy, but knew it was him. He called me on his radio and said, 'Tell my wife goodbye.' I lost two really good friends, Smith and John Clay. Another good friend, Art Summers, was captured but got back OK. "
So Cottrell - who turned 90 on Jan. 17 - will celebrate that milestone and jump in honor and memory of all those lost in the great conflict, remembering especially his close friends.
"When Danny called me a month ago, he said I'd be in exclusive company," Cottrell said. "I am going to jump tandem with the man that took President Bush down twice."
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or jfchappell @gmail.com.
More like this story