John was a child of Vaudeville; he became a professional entertainer at the age of four. He was an immediate hit on stage and when silent films came out, John was cast to co-star with the likes of Charlie Chaplin then later as a stand-alone child and young adult star in the “Talkies”.
That’s when John took his place in history… the first time – as the world’s first child star. By the age of twelve John was one of the most popular entertainers in Hollywood, and was considered to be the most popular boy in America.
Newspapers reported that “Other children want to go see Babe Ruth – Babe Ruth wanted to visit the Kid.” MGM signed him to a $500,000 contract (approx. 8 million in 2016 $). Life couldn’t be better for a boy in his late teens. He even married the hottest starlet in movies – Betty Grable.
Then the un-thinkable happened – his father was killed in a freak accident and his mother ran off with the family attorney. The couple made legal claim to all of John’s assets. Since he was a minor he had no recourse.
John’s mother and her new beau kept John’s fortune. His marriage to Grable began to unravel and he couldn’t work without parental consent. Virtually broke and abandoned, help came from an old friend and mentor – Charlie Chaplin, offered John enough cash to get him through to his 21st birthday and legal adulthood. He could get his next big role and repay Chaplin when he had the means.
With Chaplin’s help, John filed a lawsuit and won. It was too late for him to recover any of his assets, but the law was changed to require a portion of any child star’s income be put in trust until they were adults. This was the second time John took his place in history – the Law is named for him.
John was blackballed by Hollywood studios because of the lawsuit and couldn’t get a part so he decided to take a different path and leave the movie industry behind.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940. I’m not sure if John was tired of chewing dirt or just thought he was a better pilot than infantryman but he decided to inform the Army that he was a licensed pilot.
In 1940 it was in vogue for the rich to learn to fly and own airplanes – John was no different and by 20 he was an accomplished Pilot.
He transferred to the Army Air Force as a pilot and when given the opportunity to volunteer for an “Unknown Unit with an Unknown Mission” – John volunteered and was accepted; this was the third time he made his mark on history, albeit anonymously.
He was trained as a Glider Pilot and became part of Gen Hap Arnold’s 5318th Provisional Unit (Air) – they were assigned to provide air and logistic support to the “Chindits” – British commandos operating in the rough Burma Theater. So named for the mythical Griffin like creatures locals believed guarded temples in Burma. Chindits had a reputation for being hard and deadly.
The 5318th would go through a series of name changes with the final designation of 1st Air Commandos. Gen. Arnold described the mission of the Air Commando, initially named Project 9, as having 4 objectives: facilitate the forward movement of the Chindit columns; facilitate the supply and evacuation of the columns; provide a small air covering and striking force; acquire air experience under the conditions expected to be encountered.
In 1943 John was given a commission and sent to the Pacific to fly support operations for Wingate’s Chindit commandos in the field. From what I can tell, this is the first Special Operations Aviation unit in the U.S. Army – the earliest ancestor to you Night Stalkers.
5 March 1944 would mark the beginning of “Operation Thursday” – the first combat operation involving 1st Air Commandos. Amongst other things, John flew a glider full of Commandos to a tiny clearing in the jungle over 160 Kliks behind enemy lines.
The terrain was too rough to try airborne drops, so tactical plans called for Chindit engineers and Gurkha Riflemen to be delivered behind enemy lines via glider aircraft. They would then clear tiny landing fields for the larger C-64 Norseman and other medium sized aircraft.
The Gurkha are a warrior cast of Nepali people, known for legendary courage and skill in battle – they still serve the British Crown today and it is said that, “if a man tells you he isn’t afraid of dying; he’s either a liar or a Gurkha.”
Gliders would be towed two at a time to altitude then be released to continue to their target area and look for a landing site. Prospective landing areas were so small that the full sized CG-4 Waco Gliders were too large so the smaller TG-5 Training Gliders were used.
On February 15, 1944, a C-47 was towing two gliders when a malfunction occurred and the gliders collided. Four British commandos and three Americans died. The Chindit commander, whose men were killed, sent a message to the Americans. All it said was:
“Be assured that we will go with your boys Any Place, Any Time, Any Where.”