Before they go silent: Veteran from IOP among those sharing WWII stories for history

Ninty-two-year-old Arthur Cobert talks about his time in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations during World War II. (Brad Nettles/staff) 11/8/13 Buy this photo

Arthur Cobert remembers what it was like to be flying high above China, scanning for Japanese Zeroes.

Perched in the top turret of a B-25 bomber, the terrain below varied from mountains to jungles and the beaches of the South China Sea.

But when the Japanese planes pounced, the beauty of the Asian landscape was soon forgotten as Cobert’s attention turned to the hundreds of rounds of ammunition ready to be fed into his twin .50-caliber machine guns.

“It would chop ’em right off,” Cobert said, describing what happened when a burst of rounds hit home.

Today is Veterans Day, but firsthand accounts of World War II experiences like Cobert’s are in danger of disappearing. With 1940s veterans dying out at a rate of between 600 and 1,000 a day, there’s a rush to get as much as possible recorded before the voices go silent.

Cobert, 92, of the Isle of Palms, on Friday told his story to Coastal Carolina University as part of a partnership with the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.

The school’s Center for Military and Veterans Studies is collecting and preserving all sorts of oral histories taken from U.S. veterans who participated in a variety of conflicts, recent and past.

Cobert’s service is reflective of most Americans who were called up during World War II. He grew up in farm country around Lick Hollow, Va., entering the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor, leaving a wife behind. He was sent to air school and soon wound up in mid-sized U.S. bombers.

Part of his training was held in South Carolina, including out of Columbia, where Medal of Honor recipient Jimmy Doolittle had earlier trained his “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” crews.

Cobert’s flights took him all over the state. “We used to go and machine-gun Myrtle Beach,” he said with a laugh.

When his orders came to go overseas, it took more than 26 days of flying to get to an isolated base in Yangkai, China. The path took him from the U.S. to Central and South America, then on to Africa, India and over the Himalayan Mountains “hump” before reaching a rustic Chinese airfield.

Cobert was wounded on his second mission while flying low over a Japanese ammunition dump in what was then French Indochina, now modern-day Vietnam. The ground fire was so thick it left more than 250 holes in his airplane.

One blast physically blew him out of his gun turret. He spent the next three hours flying home while lying wounded on the floor of the aircraft, bathed in a mix of his own blood and leaking hydraulic fluid. His convalescence was done while living in a Chinese cave.

Rod Gragg, director of CCU’s Center for Military and Veterans Studies, said the interviews represent a valuable trove of knowledge, with memories running from the frightful to the mundane.

“I consider collecting all these interviews to be time sensitive,” he said, pointing to dwindling ranks of World War II men. More than 100 veterans have been interviewed and recorded, he said. The project is also supported by CresCom Bank and Agape Senior Center.

Cobert said he has mostly fond feelings of the Chinese. During his months overseas he lived as they lived and ate as they ate, since resupply with American goods was often difficult.

“They didn’t have a lot, but they shared it with us and we were thankful for it,” Cobert said.

“When I got home, I wouldn’t eat rice for five years,” he added of the otherwise bland diet.

After the war and following 17 missions on Japanese targets, Cobert made it home to the U.S., rejoining his wife and family. He worked for the Pentagon for a while and retired to the IOP.

Serving with the other airmen on the B-25 airplane remains a strong part of his memories.

“It was tough,” he said of the aircraft. “You could shoot it up, but it would still get you home.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551

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