John Happel served as a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne U.S. Army during WWII, where he was stationed in the South Pacific in the Philippines. The country boy from Seaton still knows how to pack a parachute.
John Happel and his wife Bonnie live at the top of a hill on Osage Road in a smart one-story home on 10 acres. The site overlooks a valley that lays to the south, so it could be construed as living in town and country. They are getting up in years but stay very active, having just returned from Branson where there was a large Veterans Day celebration. John served as a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne U.S. Army during WWII, where he was stationed in the South Pacific in the Philippines. But like many soldiers, he started out as a draftee and got his military religion at Camp Crowder in southwest Mo. He still has sharp memories of his drill Sgt. “He was a rough cob,” said John.
He is one of the remaining 558,000 veterans still living of the 16 million Americans who served in that war, according to National WWII Museum statistics. But John probably doesn’t care about statistics. He knows he’s lived a good life and will try to do so right to the end. He saw the bodies of many lifeless young men in 1944 that would not make it to a Veterans Day celebration sixty or seventy years into the future, and he’s grateful. He came back home to Seaton, a little village about 13 miles southeast of Rolla and gravitated towards jobs in Rolla that involved baking, though he doesn’t cook much at home—he leaves that up to his wife, Bonnie. He started out in a donut shop and wound up at Holsum Bakery for several decades before they closed. After that, he and Bonnie stayed busy volunteering at Phelps County Regional Medical Center for 24 years. Now, he and Bonnie just enjoy life in Rolla, John with his beagle hounds and Bonnie, catching up with friends. Relationships are important to her.
So what was it like to jump out of a plane at 20,000 feet in a strange land, knowing you might be shot at by the enemy when you landed? First, you need to know how to pack a parachute so you don’t make a permanent divot in the soil of some field. John said it took him three days to learn this. “I wanted to do it right, you know?” he joked. He was more concerned about landing on his first jump, than mustering the courage to jump out of a plane. “I thought I knew what to do [when I hit the ground], but the wind caught the chute, pulled me back and my head hit on a rock,” he explained. “If I didn’t have a big helmet on, it might have killed me.”
After a few more jumps, he said he learned that with a little timing, he could pull on the straps (called risers) that hold the parachute lines and it would pull him up so he could “just walk out of the chute.”
“You’ve got to get that chute collapsed if it’s windy because that thing will drag you all over the place,” he said. “It’s a big chute.”
John said a C-46 (Curtiss C-46 Commando) would take paratroopers to an altitude of about 20,000 feet for their drop. A paratrooper’s mission was to be dropped behind the front fighting infantry behind enemy lines, to serve as backup fighting troops. This enabled quick deployment to refresh troops, as opposed to slow and dangerous ground movements in enemy territory. According to AirplanesOfThePast.com, the C-46 had a cruising speed of 173 mph, a service ceiling of 24,500 ft., a range of 3,150 mi. at 173 mph., and could carry 40 troops or 30 stretcher patients or 15,000 lbs. of cargo.
John said there were nine jumpers to a group, so there might be 5 groups. At jump time, the door is open and all nine jumpers are lined up behind one another with an overhead lead that is attached to the parachute. It slides down towards the door with the jumpers moving up towards the door to take their turn to jump.
John said the idea is to scatter the jumpers just enough so they don’t get tangled up in another jumpers chute, and yet, get everyone out the door so they land on the target and are close enough to regroup the unit.
An officer stands in the front near the door and hits the paratrooper on the leg when it is their time to jump. “It’s something to be standing in that open door with that cold wind blowing in your face at 100 mph,” he related.
The attached leader pulls the chute open once the jumper is out the door. Regardless, John says you still count one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three and if the primary shoot is open, you just concentrate on your target landing. If the main chute didn’t open for some reason, you pull the reserve chute open.
“Some of the boys would be excited and they wouldn’t wait for the count,” said John. He added they would pull the reserve chute open, even though the main chute was opened. The danger there is tangled lines or the chutes not opening to full capacity and therefore a harder landing, risking a broken leg or worse.
Did anybody have trouble jumping out of the plane? John said they were shoved out if they hesitated. A paratrooper carried everything he might need on the battlefield. “It was quite a load, really,” he said. His weapon was a Browning Automatic Rifle M1918A2 (“BAR”) machine gun with a bayonet. It was fully automatic with adjustable rates of fire. He doesn’t have much to say about the fighting.His thoughts were to get back home and that’s where he picked up, playing baseball with a local team and trying to figure out what to do next. Little did he know, one of the cheerleaders on an opposing team (Hawkins Bank School District) was to be his future wife—Bonnie. They went out a few times but never really clicked until about 15 years later, and they’ve been together ever since. From paratrooper to baker to community volunteer, it’s been a full life for the country boy from Seaton.