Valor Friday

| April 5, 2024

Former RAAF Flight Lieutenant Garry Cooper, DFC

I’ve talked about several recipients of American military awards for valor who were members of allied nations (or even civilians). This includes the Medal of Honor received by Mary Edwards Walker, the Distinguished Service Cross to Virginia Hall, and most recently, my article on the DSC awarded to John Paul Vann. Today’s subject is the only non-American to have received the American Air Force Cross.

Born in 1938 in Adelaide, South Australia, Garry Cooper shares a name with the much more famous Academy Award-winning actor Gary Cooper, but there’s no relation. As a young man, Cooper was drawn early on to aviation, receiving his glider pilot’s license at just 16 years old. A few years later he got his commercial pilot’s license, and found work with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).

For those not familiar with Australia, the Flying Doctors are kind of a cross between life flight and Doctors Without Borders. Australia is a vast country (it is a continent unto itself after all), but most of their major cities are on the coasts. This leaves the vast interiors of the country, not unlike the American Southwest, sparsely populated. The Flying Doctors provide rural medical care in remote locales, and emergency transport of critical patients.

After a time with the RFDS he got a job flying commercial flights in New Guinea, and about three years later was accepted for pilot training with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), enlisting in 1960. As with America, the conflict in Southeast Asia would soon draw Australian involvement. Like America, the military contingent to South Vietnam for Australia started small, with a handful of advisors in 1962. In 1965, the Aussies increased their involvement in the war. Ultimately 61,000 Australian men would serve in the country, and more than 500 would die there.

Cooper’s class of 20 pilot candidates would see only 11 graduate, with Cooper at the top of his class. He was trained to fly several venerable aircraft, like the C-47 Dakota, the Canberra jet bomber, and the Vampire fighter jet. He also took two trips to the Antarctic, where he flew de Havilland Beavers from a Danish ship to remote Antarctic research posts.

In 1962, Cooper was trained on the Avon Sabre (an Australian license-built version of the F-86 Sabre) and would see operational postings flying these fighters in Thailand, Borneo, and Malaysia. On one flight in 1964 in a Sabre, he lost the engine (on a single-engine fighter, that can be a big deal) and was able to glide it to a safe landing. In 1966, Cooper was selected for conversion training in the then-state of the art Dassault Mirage III fighter jet.

In 1966, Cooper again lost his fighter’s only engine, this time in a Mirage, on take off, as he was climbing through just 1,500 feet. He was able to use his experiences to once more conduct a deadstick landing, without damaging his aircraft. On ground inspection, it was found that his engine had suffered a failure due to a bird strike. He received high praise for his airmanship from his flight leader, who witnessed Cooper’s successful handling of the emergency. Years later, the man would say that Cooper’s emergency landing on a dis-used wartime airstrip nearby “was little short of incredible.”

Garry Cooper in Antarctica, with DHC Beaver float plane

Amazingly, this was the third time he’d lost an engine and was forced down. Flying over an Antarctic glacier in 1963, his Beaver’s carburetor iced over, killing the engine. He was able to glide the float plane to an ocean landing. They paddled the plane to shore, set up a camp, and waited several hours for rescue.

In 1967, while flying in a Mirage over Darwin, Australia, Cooper’s fuel pump went out at 25,000 feet and his jet flamed out. Being his fourth in-flight engine failure, he was old hat at the deadstick glide landing. Which is particularly challenging in a Mirage III, as the tailless delta wing fighter has a relatively high landing speed of 180 knots.

After flying Mirages for a while, Cooper’s next assignment was to Vietnam, in early 1968. He was seconded to a US Air Force unit, the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron (TASS). The 19th TASS in turn was essentially seconded to provide air support for the US Army’s 3rd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division (9th ID). The squadron flew O-1 Bird Dog liaison aircraft.

The Bird Dog, made by Cessna and derived from their venerable 170 line of general aviation aircraft, was a purpose-built observation and liaison aircraft. Where the Cessna 170 was a two seater in side-by-side configuration, the Bird Dog switched to tandem seating. Angled side windows improved visibility, as did transparent panels on the wing’s center section (over the cockpit) and a sizable rear window. An all-metal aircraft, the O-1 replaced the wood and doped fabric WWII-era liaison aircraft like the Piper Cub, for a longer service life. They first saw action in Korea, and remained in service into the 1970s.

While made of metal, the Bird Dog was not armored. It was, by any definition, a light aircraft. It was also essentially unarmed, carrying only rockets to mark targets for the larger, armed close air support planes and gunships. The pilots would, at most, be carrying their rifle or sidearm.

The Bird Dog’s mission, and that which Cooper and the men of the 19th TASS flew, was forward air control (FAC). The FACs coordinate closely with ground units like the 9th ID. They use their Bird Dogs, which have excellent low speed, low altitude performance, and fuel efficient engines to loiter over the ground operation. From their elevated position, they can coordinate close air support, artillery, and naval gunfire.

FLTLT Cooper in Vietnam with O-1 Bird Dog

As I’ve described, these FACs were flying low, slow, directly over active ground combat, weren’t armored, and, since they were well known to the enemy as the source of all the indirect fire they were receiving, were a prime target for enemy ground fire. It was thus a dangerous job. Certainly not as glamorous as firing Sidewinders at North Vietnamese MiGs from your multi-million dollar, Mach 2-capable, F-4 Phantom, it took a particular brand of crazy to be a FAC.

Cooper says of the hazardous assignment, “Although the task was dangerous, this became a way of life and as long as you did not plan on anything tomorrow, life was good.”

In Vietnam from March 1968 to November, Cooper would spend more than 600 hours in combat over 323 missions. He was in country for some of the heaviest action of the war. As part of “Mini Tet” in May, he was flying missions around the clock. On 11 May 1968 he’d been awake for more than 19 hours, had been flying for 13, and spent about five of those hours actively evading anti-aircraft fire.

That week’s combat action saw Cooper fly at extreme low altitudes, just a couple hundred yards distant from the thickest of the fighter. He was calling in airstrikes and napalm at close range, the blasts and fire occurring so close to him that the ground troops could see his little Bird Dog illuminated as he bobbed and weaved through the harrowing battle. In between calling in airstrikes, he was observed from the ground shooting at the enemy with his AR-15 rifle out the window of the plane!

Cooper was recommended for a US Army Distinguished Service Cross for his performance during Mini-Tet. That award recommendation is apparently still pending, but is unlikely to result in any movement.

For repeatedly exposing himself to extreme danger to mark enemy targets, Cooper was awarded the Silver Star. He also received four American Distinguished Flying Crosses, an Australian Distinguished Flying Cross (the two awards are roughly equivalent), two American Bronze Star Medals w/ “V”, a Purple Heart, 12 Air Medals (at least one with “V”), and two Army Commendation Medals w/ “V”. From the South Vietnamese, he received the Gallantry Cross twice. The first award was with a palm, indicating a citation at the Army-level, and the second with a silver star, indicating a citation in orders at the divisional level. They also gave him their Wound Medal and a first class award of the Armed Forces Honor Medal.

This rather long list of decorations is impressive enough, and we haven’t even got to his ultimate act of bravery. On 18 August 1968, Cooper was a FAC observer flying aboard OH-23 Raven. The Raven is a small observation helicopter that looks very similar to the H-13 Sioux, made famous as the medevac helicopter of the movie and TV show M*A*S*H. The Raven was the chopper being flown by Hugh Thompson when he landed in front of ground troops, interrupting the My Lai Massacre in 1968.

An OH-23 has just a bench seat with three seatbelts. Three large guys would be a…cozy…experience. In this case, Cooper was acting as the FAC for 1st Brigade, 9th Infantry Division. He was flying over Rach Kien, South Vietnam. Cooper, along with the US Army helicopter’s pilot, squeezed into the little bubble cockpit of the Raven was brigade commander Colonel Robert Archer.

Cooper was dual hatted that day, working as both a FAC calling in airstrikes from US Air Force 12th Tactical Fighter Wing F-4 Phantoms and giving advice to the brigade commander as the Air Liaison Officer (ALO). It was a busy little helicopter I’m sure.

During their frequent low level flights over the battlefield, the helicopter took a lot of the enemy’s fire. Flying at just 200 feet above the jungle, they were motivated to fly in such dangerous territory as the ground troops they were supporting and directing were pinned down and taking heavy casualties.

Raked by VC fire for 30 minutes, the helicopter was finally hit. Shot in the head, the pilot was immediately incapacitated as his head “disintegrated” as noted in one narrative report. Cooper, who had no training on flying rotary wing aircraft (but did have considerable experience crashing aircraft) reached over, took the controls and, though they crashed into an open rice paddy, they were still alive. For now. The enemy was just 200 yards away, and directed their attention to the downed Raven.

Cooper’s helmet


Cooper’s back was wounded in the crash. Also a bullet had ripped into his helmet near his left ear, and somehow miraculously missed his skull before exiting the front of his headgear. The hit to his helmet had spun it around, blocking his vision. For a terrifying moment he thought he’d been blinded. More critically injured was the brigade commander. The colonel had been hit by the same round that struck the pilot’s head, entering Archer’s neck. As a result, he was unable to extricate himself from the wrecked airframe. They were also surrounded by Viet Cong (VC), and the crash site was taking heavy small arms and automatic weapons fire from the nearby enemy. The men of the 9th ID they’d been helping moments ago could hear the automatic weapons fire pinging off the crashed helicopter.

Despite his own injuries, Cooper dragged Colonel Archer from the crash site and carried him through the enemy fire to a position of relative cover in a nearby dyke. With only his sidearm, Cooper and the stricken colonel dug in and prepared to go down fighting.

From above, the F-4 Phantom pilots watched helplessly as their FAC went down. Unable to provide fire, they circled the battlefield helplessly. From their position they could see Cooper, distinctive due to his Australian flight suit, dragging Archer across the paddy under heavy fire. They knew Cooper, having worked with him frequently, and said a little prayer for the FAC, because they knew the men would not survive long under those conditions.

The enemy knew where he was, and assaulted his position. American (and in this case allied) flyers were excellent prizes for the VC. Waist deep in water in the rice paddy, the enemy attempted to sneak up on Cooper and Archer repeatedly through the night. Each time, Cooper was able to drive them off. He killed at least 10 VC at close range, nearly exhausting his ammunition.

As morning broke, the enemy, thanks to frequent air strikes, wasn’t pressing so hard on Cooper’s position. An evacuation helicopter was able to attempt a landing. Taking heavy fire as they came in over Cooper and Archer, the helicopter had to pull back and land nearby. They would have to run through the open to reach salvation.

As the two men made their final run, Cooper stopped to use his final rounds of ammunition to provide some covering fire as Archer was being picked up. The enemy made one last push to take down the Aussie aviator. Cooper fought them off bodily, and actually beat two of them to death in hand-to-hand combat with his empty pistol. After Archer was aboard, Cooper jumped on, and they were carried off to safety. Archer wrote, “I owe my life to Flight Lieutenant Cooper. His conduct and service were of the highest order.”

Cooper’s American commanders immediately recommended him for the Medal of Honor for his heroism that day. Since at least WWI, the Medal of Honor is restricted only to those serving in (not with) the American armed forces, unless by special Act of Congress (such as for Charles Lindbergh, though he was an Army Reserve officer at the time). Instead, it was assumed that Cooper would receive the Victoria Cross, the Australian equivalent award.

The Australians didn’t bestow any such honor, as Cooper was under total control of the American military at the time. That means that all the paperwork documenting Cooper’s actions wasn’t readily accessible to the proper authorities, so it all got lost in the fog of war. In the 70s, through no small help from Cooper’s mother, Australian authorities looked into the matter, which then triggered a review of the materials by the US Air Force.

Finally, in 1981, Cooper met with American officials at the US Embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and was given the US Air Force Cross (and his other bevy of American medals). The service crosses are the second-highest award of the American military, for valor in action, and can be (though rarely are) awarded to foreigners serving with the American military. To date, Cooper is the only foreigner to have earned the Air Force Cross (though the equivalent Army Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross have been awarded as such).

After the ceremony in Jeddah, Cooper’s Air Force Cross medal itself was lost. Decades later, someone would spend about four years tracking it down. It would be re-presented to him in a 2021 ceremony.

The most recent Australian review of Cooper’s petition for a Victoria Cross was in 2018 and denied the request. Despite the ample evidence, the board looking at the matter concluded that his Australian DFC (which covers his entire Vietnam tour) and the numerous foreign awards he’s been given are recognition enough. I’d disagree. Receiving a valor award from a foreign government is an especially high honor, but it doesn’t carry the same cachet or prestige as does a native award. Only four men received the Victoria Cross for actions in Vietnam.

Cooper finished his Vietnam tour a couple of months after this. His sobering flight back home on an RAAF C-130 saw him in a cargo hold with the remains of Australian soldiers killed in action. Cooper left the RAAF in 1969. He then went to work for Ansett Airlines.

The final battle damage assessment for Cooper’s time in Vietnam is;

  • Enemy Killed – 1034
  • Bridges destroyed – 7
  • Sampans destroyed – 153
  • Structures destroyed – 316
  • Bunkers destroyed – 769
  • Troops in contact support – 97
  • Air strikes by day – 293
  • Air strikes by night – 37

In 1973, Cooper rescued a Supermarine Spitfire Mk XIV in Hong Kong. Shipping it back to Australia, in 1977 work was started to return the warbird to flying condition. He sold it to another Australian in 2002. At that time it was still listed as a restoration project, and it doesn’t appear to have flown again as of yet. He also at one point owned an A6M Zero warbird. This plane was a look-alike, made from a WWII-era T-6 Harvard, for the film Tora, Tora, Tora.

In 1980, he received the personal thanks of King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan. He was captain of a Boeing 707 contracted to fly for the Jordanian flag carrier. As they departed Saudi Arabia, the #4 engine of the four-engined jetliner started on fire. Cooper and his flight engineer (FE) confirmed it was engine #4, and when Cooper called for the shutdown of that engine, the FE inadvertently killed engine #3. Now both engines on the right wing were dead weight. While trying to restart #3, the FE gave Cooper full power on all engines. With just the left two engines running, this created a hard right yaw, pushing the nose of the aircraft to the right.

The yaw caused a disruption to the airflow to engines #1 and #2, with #2 surging and entered a compressor stall. In a compressor stall the engine doesn’t shut down, but the airflow disruption keeps the engine from moving any air, thus producing little to no thrust. Cooper in a span of just a few moments went from an engine fire on one of his four engines to having lost three quarters of his propulsion.

Engine #2’s blow off doors opened, which were ingested by Engine #1. Now Engine #1 (and still Engine #4) were giving fire indicators. Number 2 was providing no thrust. The only good engine, #3, was still dead in the air.

Cooper got an emergency clearance, and, since he’d successfully crashed so many different aircraft, was able to use what little thrust he had to keep his plane in the air long enough to turn back to the airport and land. Upon touchdown the brakes and the nose wheel steering quit working. Standing on the emergency brakes, Cooper blew all of the landing gear tires getting the plane to a halt.

He’d saved the plane and all 116 souls aboard during the incident. The whole flight from take off to getting the plane stopped again had only taken about seven minutes. Cooper was uniquely experienced to be the captain to save the day on that flight.

In his career, Cooper logged more than 25,000 hours flying a wide range of military and civil aircraft, from the little O-1 Bird Dog to the mighty Boeing 747. In addition to all the honors and decorations I’ve already discussed, Cooper holds the RAAF’s Ground Combat Badge. The rarely seen badge is given to RAAF airmen who engage in interpersonal combat against the enemy on the ground.

Cooper has spent his years since retiring from the airline in 2000 flying a variety of vintage warbirds. He published a book on his Vietnam experiences in 2006 titled “Sock it to ’em Baby.”

From now on, when I hear the song “Puttin’ On the Ritz”, and the line “Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper” comes up, I will now hear it as “Garry Cooper” and think of someone trying hard to look like a badass Australian aviator. Now that’s “super duper!”

Category: Air Force, Air Force Cross, Aussies, UK and Commonwealth Awards, Valor, Vietnam

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How did the aircraft even take off with those huge brass balls?

“In between calling in airstrikes, he was observed from the ground shooting at the enemy with his AR-15 rifle out the window of the plane!”


He didn’t need an armored aircraft, he just draped his balls over it. “…actually beat two of them to death in hand-to-hand combat with his empty pistol.” Nothing like “bringing every weapon to bear…”

DAAAYYUUUM! A True Warrior…and pilot’s pilot! SALUTE!

Great story, Mason. Thanks!


Whaddaya bet he was carrying the Lord’s favorite sidearm… that’s a big hunk of steel to get hit with.


When you have balls that big, the laws of physics do not apply.


Aplomb. Sangfroid. Imperturbable. Composure. Legend.

This guy needs a movie made about him.

James Haltom

A movie about Cooper would be so much better than Barbie. Are there any men movies any more?


Nobody would believe it.


As badass warriors go, this guy is way up the list. He’s definitely hell on aircraft engines, though.


As I told my last Brigade Commander who had was hit with IED attacks 13 times; “Sir I think you are awesome and all but I’m a never, ever, riding in a vehicle with you, just in case the luck doesn’t rub off.*


There’s always a “shit magnet” in every group. How’s his noggin, hope he didn’t get his squash messed up.


If the Aussies had sent just a few more the rest of us could have stayed home.


Great uplifting (see what I did there) story.
The part about beating the two VC to death with an empty
pistol is incredible.
TNX again Mason for making my day.


Just …. WOW!

Here’s the RAAF Ground Combat Badge:


Mr. Cooper is a total badass.


Absolutely awesome posy. Thanks Mason.

Can’t believe I’ve never heard of this story.

I have to stop making fun of raafies now 😒 and only a few weeks before ANZAC Day too…