HAMILTON, Miss. --
John Cockerham, a former B-17 Flying Fortress gunner during World War II, was laid to rest at 95 years old March 16 in Hamilton, Mississippi.
Cockerham grew up in Hamilton and worked as an aircraft sheet-metal worker on Columbus Army Air Field, Mississippi, (now Columbus Air Force Base) from 1942-1943. There he cut, formed and assembled sheet-metal used in the assembly of aircraft parts, fittings and structures.
In 1943, Cockerham was drafted into the Army Air Corps as a B-17 gunner and fought on the European front in World War II. He was assigned to the 100th Bombardment Group, also known as the ‘Bloody 100th.’ During that time, Cockerham conducted 21 combat flying missions over Central Europe where he was responsible for dropping bombs and defending his own and other Allied aircraft.
During his funeral service, his grandson Tracey told the attendants about a time that he couldn’t fly due to being severely ill. On that same day, his crew was shot down and did not return. Cockerham’s group flew 306 missions during World War II and lost about 180 aircraft.
According to a certificate of achievements, a B-17 gunner, his job was to defend his own aircraft as well as the surrounding Allied aircraft. He performed daily inspections and repaired bomb racks, bomb release mechanisms, aerial gun sights, flare racks, flare rack controls and chemical carrying release mechanisms. He also installed armament equipment on aircraft, disassembled and reassembled guns and inspected them for deficiencies. After ensuring all of the equipment was operational, he would man his turret and operate the bomb release.
After World War II, he joined the National Guard where he served as an infantryman and fought in the Korean War. Cockerham then retired in 1969 with 21 years of service.
Throughout his service, he was awarded the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters. The Air Medal is a military decoration created in 1942 to recognize single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Not everyone gets this medal, especially not three times.
“He was a true American,” said Lynn West, Cockerham’s grandson-in-law. “He taught me everything I needed to know about God, country and service.”
At the funeral, members from the Columbus Air Force Base Honor Guard performed a rifle salute, played taps, folded and presented an American flag to his wife, Georgia Mae.
As Senior Airman Sean Perry, a Columbus Air Force Base ceremonial guardsman, walked to present the flag to Georgia Mae, a pair of T-38C Talons roared over the ceremony. One of the T-38s broke off into a “fallen wingman” pattern and disappeared into the bright blue sky.
“It was the most beautiful process I have ever seen,” said Leigh Ann West, Cockerham’s granddaughter. “I’ve never experienced so many emotions at one funeral; sadness, happiness, excitement, and anticipation.”