CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Robert Cornell was a United States Army veteran who served as a Quartermaster Corps officer for most of his time in the Army. He was assigned to the Test and Development Section of the Airborne Command at Ft. Bragg, N.C. from June 1942 until March 1944. Then Cornell was sent to Truck Officer School at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts through October 1944, after which he was deployed to China.
Cornell was born in Westfield, N.J., as one of three sons. His mother was a concert pianist and his father an attorney in New York City. While in high school, Cornell was a competitive athlete; in 1932 he became the New Jersey state pole vaulting champion. This achievement resulted in an offer of an athletic scholarship from Rutgers University. He turned down the offer and instead worked as an insurance broker for his father’s insurance company for two years.
On December 7th of 1941, Cornell and his brother decided to stop by a local tavern for a drink. While there, they heard over the radio that Japanese airplanes had attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor; immediately they went home to be with their mother. As the brothers entered the house, they saw her sitting in the kitchen. It was the first time they had ever seen her crying. The military draft had been in effect since September 1940, and she knew it was sure to accelerate. Robert reassured his mother that he would be safe and smart once he was in the military. On February 20, 1942 Robert Cornell was drafted, and his military career officially began.
Cornell was sent to Camp Croft, South Carolina for Army basic and advanced training. He recalled that the experience was very intense and, at the same time, routine. After four months of training, Cornell graduated as an infantryman. He was not sent to an infantry unit, however, but instead was assigned to the Airborne Command Headquarters at Fort Bragg North Carolina, where he worked in the supply test and development section. For two years Cornell participated in aerial resupply tests, which involved dropping supplies out of a C-47 aircraft in a specific drop zone. He and the other men in his group would examine the drop areas after the tests and write reports on whether or not they were successful.
In March 1944 Cornell went to Quartermaster Officer Candidate School at Fort Lee, Virginia, graduating as a second lieutenant in July 1944. He recalled that this was one of the smartest choices he made in the army. In October 1944, Cornell was assigned to Fort Devens, Massachusetts to attend Truck Officers School. At Devens, he was trained in how to properly transport supplies in support of active military operations.
Initially Cornell did not understand why he was assigned to the school, but when the subject of military transport in China was stressed, it dawned on him that his training was related to the American effort to supply Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese army via the Burma Road, which stretched from Burma to southwest China. The road was built in 1937-1938, while Burma was a British colony, to transport supplies to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It was closed when the Japanese overran Burma in the first months of 1942, restricting Chinese resupply to “over the hump” flights from India. After General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell’s army liberated parts of Burma in late 1944, however, the road became available as a supply conduit once more.
After completing his training, Cornell left for the Camp Anza Port of Embarkation in California, where he waited for eight days before boarding a troop transport for Hobart, in Tasmania, an island off the Australian coast, where he spent five days on overnight shore leave. From Tasmania, Cornell crossed the International Date Line on his way to Bombay, India, where he stayed at what he described as a “swanky” building called the Taj Mahal Hotel, which was used to house both British and American service personnel. He remembered seeing Mahatma Gandhi while in Bombay, albeit only from a distance; and, he recalled how obviously respected the iconic leader was by the Indian community.
After a short stay in Bombay, Cornell traveled across India by air, crossing over the “hump” of the Himalayas at 22,000 feet with the aid of an oxygen mask. His plane landed in Kunming, China, where he observed the P-40 fighter planes of the 23rd Fighter Group, formerly the “Flying Tigers” American volunteer pilot group that assisted Chinese combat operations. This 23rd retained the immediately recognizable shark-faced nose art of its predecessor unit.
Cornell left Kunming, for Chanyi, (today’s Zhanyi) an American airbase and forward supply railhead for the Nationalist Chinese Army, where he remained for three months as a petroleum, lubricant, transportation, and mess officer. His unit consisted of sixteen enlisted men and two officers. While at Chanyi, he ran into P-51 pilot Ray Croll, an old high school acquaintance. In Cornell’s senior year, he taught a class in tumbling, in which Croll was a freshman student. After meeting Ray Croll, Cornell felt like he had a piece of home with him in China.
With the end of the war, Cornell left Kunming for home in a C-54 transport plane, stopping at Calcutta, and at various airfields near the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and the Rock of Gibraltar. He was discharged from active duty in 1946 and was awarded a Bronze Battle Star on his theater service ribbon for the South China Offensive. A civilian once more, Cornell returned to the insurance business. He later joined the New Jersey National Guard, a decision he recalled as one of the “best moves” he made in his military service. Cornell eventually retired as a lieutenant colonel. He was a member of several veterans’ organizations, including the “Hump Pilots Association.” Cornell enjoyed making aircraft models in his spare time; his daughter later donated some to the National Guard Militia Museum in Sea Girt New Jersey for possible display.
Robert Cornell passed away on Thursday, March 15, 2007 at the age of 92.