The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met!
By John Allison
Maj General, USAFR
We were both air cadets when we met at Randolph Field, Texas, in 1936. He was short, square-jawed, smiling, his thick wavy hair already prematurely gray. His name was Phil Cochran and he looked anything but what he was; a former choirboy from Erie, PA. He had instinctive strut and dash, and you felt in him immediately the qualities of leadership that were to make him one of the legendary figures of World War II>
Phil was only 26 then, and just learning to fly, but his rich vocabulary, his irreverence, and general savvy caused the rest of us cadets to look upon him as the Old Man. “I am an old man,” he used to say with a grin. A smart man ages fast, the way the rest of you jokers fly.”
He was the perfect embodiment of the hot pilot, and nod when his likeness, complete with broad grin and rakish airman’s cap, turned up as “Flip Corkin” in Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates” comic strip.
As we moved along in our training to Langely Field, VA, and Mitchel Field, NY, Phil worked ceaselessly to perfect himself and the squadron he now commanded. He loved to experiment, to try the unorthodox. Phil turned his fighter planes into fighter-bombers by strapping bombs to them, and used the technique of skip-bombing. Once he strapped a bomb to his plane and dropped it on a German generals’ headquarters at Kairouan, flying in so low he had to zoom up to get over the one-story building.
Phil was no respecter of rank, and on one occasion clashed with Gen. Henri Giraud, commander of all French forces in Africa. The French, for whom Phil’s squadron was flying air support, were badly mauled by Rommel’s panzers. After one engagement, Giraud shouted at Cochran, “There should be more planes, hundreds more!” “You’ve got to fight on the ground!” Phil yelled back. “You can’t hide behind a rock and have planes do the whole job.” A few days later, Phil got a letter from Giraud, conceding he was right. And, not long him the Croix de Guerre.
Living in a dugout, scrounging for supplies, flying so incessantly that he barely had time to eat and sleep, Cochran became a legend among his men. Once Gen. “Uncle Joe”, bedraggled, unkept men. “Do you mean to say your commanding officers lets you go around looking like that?” snapped Cannon. “Hell, General,” an unshaven pilot drawled, “You ought to see him.” “Cochran dominated his world from Tebessa onward,” wrote Vincent Sheean. “He seemed a kind of electrical disturbance in human form, and he infected the very ground with the delusion it belonged to him.”
When North Africa fell to the Allies, Cochran returned to the United States and soon was summoned to Washington. The Allied leaders had agreed on a plan to retake Burma by invasion from India. America would furnish the ground forces under Gen Orde Wingate. America would furnish the air support, led by Phil, with me as his deputy commander. We supplying his forces and evacuating the wounded.
“But we’re fighter pilots!” Phil flared when Gen “Hap” Arnold outlined the assignment. General Arnold continued explaining the plan, with a twinkle in his eye. We gathered that although we were to support the land drive, he wouldn’t mind if turned it into an air show. That twinkle was all Phil needed. But how could you make an air show out of flying support for men and mules trudging slowly through the jungles? The inspiration struck-gliders! Why not leap the troops over the jungles to land behind enemy lines?
Arnold who called Phil “the toughest little Irishman I’ve ever seen,” told him to draw up a list of what he needed. Then we set our scrounging-dogtrotting through the corridors of the Pentagon, pounding on doors to beg, borrow or steal the men and equipment. We got 500 men, pilots and glider specialists; 30 rocket firing P-51 Mustangs; transport planes; a squadron of Mitchell bombers, 150 light planes and 150 gliders. Our glider pilots trained in North Carolina.
“People that fly airplanes are fool enough,” Phil said, as we watched the big, lumbering craft, “but anyone can who gets into one of those things is a damn fool.” Then after a few minutes: “Well, let’s find out how to fly one of these contraptions ourselves.” After learning to fly a glider, Phil tried snatching gliders off the ground with speeding planes-a new and ticklish technique. He kept working at it, riding in a snatched-up glider himself, until our pilots had perfected the perilous maneuver.
With our Air Commandos finally trained, Phil flew to Delhi to join Wingate. He arrived to find the campaign canceled; scrubbed, Wingate said bitterly, for lack of air transport. Phil stormed that only a limited amount of transport would be needed since, in addition to the light planes Wingate was counting on, we had 150 gliders to haul supplies. Wingate’s dark eyes widened as Phil explained that the gliders could also move a sizable force of troops. The general immediately spread a map on the floor and planned how his Chindits, airlifted deep into the jungle, could fan out from there and fight the Japanese.
Phil went before the Southeast Asia Command. Around a table sat Lord Louis Mountbattten and Generals Auchinleck, Stilwell, Chenault and Stratemeyer. Phil’s quick thinking and colorful vocabulary now stood him in good stead as he argued for his glider plan. “My boy.” Lord Mountbatten said finally, “you are the only ray of sunshine we’ve had in this theater this year.” The Burma invasion plan was reinstated.
When I landed in India Phil met me, bubbling with enthusiasm. We worked hard at our base in the Assam hill country, getting ready for the big push. We lived in grass huts in the jungle; there were tigers and pythons around, and baboons sometimes ran across the airfield. Morale was high among the men although discipline, as usual under Phil, was lax.
Once Mountbatten came to our field and addressed the men. A returning pilot, seeing the crowd gathered around a speaker on a jeep, assumed it was Cochran. Putting his Mustang into a dive he swept down at 500 MPH and buzzed Mountbatten’s head. The tall Supreme Commander of the Southeast Asia Theater stood there without flinching, but Phil almost fainted. “That damn fool is new here, Lord Louis,” he explained hastily, “He thought it was just me.”
In preparation for the invasion our planes began pounding Japanese bases in Burma. Although Phil, now 34, was old for a fighter pilot, he was in the thick of action. One mission his plane was shot up and he was mistakenly reported killed. That time his hometown paper printed his obituary.
The all-airborne invasion of northern Burma was made the night of March 5, 1944. Our transports took off after sundown, each plane towing two gliders jammed with troops and mules. I piloted one of the lead gliders; Wingate had ordered Phil to stay back at headquarters with him. Our target was a jungle clearing (we called it “Broadway”) 165 miles behind the Japanese lines in Burma.
It was almost a disaster. On the way, 17 gliders were lost-many of them over enemy territory. Of the gliders that landed, most piled up in buffalo wallows or in furrows hidden by the tall grass, where elephants had dragged teak logs. We would be frantically dragging wounded men and bucking mules out of one wrecked glider when we’d hear another whistling down through the darkness to smash into it. Finally we got our damaged radio working and, after 46 gliders had landed, stopped the rest from coming down.
Fortunately, our invasion caught the enemy by surprise and there was no immediate opposition. Soon we had a makeshift runway ready to receive more planes and gliders. The next night we occupied a second clearing, and then a third. We built airstrips in the clearing, and from these new bases Phil and I and our fighter pilots harassed the Japanese. Phil used a trick he had developed in North Africa of equipping his plane with a weight on the end of a cable, zooming in low over Japanese telephone lines and ripping them out with the dangling cable. In one month alone our fighters destroyed one fifth of the Japanese air force in Burma, once destroying 100 planes on the ground in two days. Phil’s Air Commandos and Wingate’s Chindits had strangled Japanese supply lines, contributing materially to the fall of northern Burma to Stilwell’s army shortly afterward.
It all seems far away now. The Burma jungles have grown up again over the rutted old clearing called Broadway. The P-40s and P-51s Phil Cochran flew seem as obsolete as armored warhorses, but his own qualities of daring and imagination and humor are vivid in my memory. Whenever I think of those adventurous days, I see him on the dusty jungle runway, gray hair blowing in the prop wash, surrounded by his “kids,” the fighter pilots who worshipped him.