Veterans visiting museums may find an airplane similar to one they flew aboard during wartime, but when Nick Cooney visited the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum last week, he found the exact plane on which he served as a turret gunner during World War II.
The plane is a TBM Avenger, a World War II torpedo bomber. Cooney, 89, stood beside the gleaming blue plane with folding wings, telling his story during the 18th annual AirFest at the museum.
Originally from Philadelphia, Cooney spent a number of years living in Sea Isle City. He said he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 18 and was in combat by 19. Cooney said he did not feel he was pilot material, so the next best job was gunner.
“I was one of those gung-ho kids out of North Catholic High School in Philadelphia,” Cooney said.
He trained up and down the West Coast of the U.S. in ground-to-air, air-to-air and torpedo runs. Cooney said he flew from the carrier USS Belleau Wood and saw action in Iwo Jima, Okinawa, the China Sea and the Japanese homeland from late 1944 through most of 1945. He flew with a pilot and a radioman, he said.
“I had a total of 32 strikes in the Navy, and a couple were pretty close,” Cooney said.
In addition to the 32 missions, Cooney said he also flew a few anti-submarine patrols. During a torpedo run on a Japanese convoy, the TBM Avenger was hit, killing the radio operator on the plane.
He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
“It was an excellent flying plane,” Cooney said. “It could take an awful beating from anti-aircraft fire.”
“We came back one time with almost 100 holes in our plane, and another time with part of our tail shot off,” he continued. “There were times when I wished I could get out and push it to make it go faster.”
Cooney said his worst experience was on a torpedo run on a Japanese convoy in the China Sea.
“All our planes from all our carriers were vectored out to try and find it and, unfortunately, if you want to call it that, we found them first,” he said.
It was a small convoy of seven Japanese ships, including a couple of Japanese destroyer escorts.
Fighters were up high, he said.
“They came in diving with rockets ahead of us,” Cooney said. “We were out on the fringe and we were coming in from both sides and we hit a couple of the Japanese ships.”
Just in case the worst happened, Cooney had written a “last letter” about what to do with his life insurance and put it in his locker.
After the war, Cooney returned to Philadelphia and met a “beautiful girl from West Catholic” and married her in July 1946.
“It was always a joke in our house whereby I said ‘I spent three years in World War II and 67 in World War III.”