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Jackie Cochran and WW II

  • Written by  Margaret Miller Curtis
Jackie Cochran and WW II

Jackie trusted her instincts, and claimed that when she saw Floyd Odlum, a financial genius, entering an elevator in a Miami hotel, she knew he was the man for her. It mattered nothing to her that she was married with two children, and four years later, it didn’t matter to him either. The divorce was not amicable, and he became estranged from his family, but clearly adored his favorite story teller. 

The son of a minister, he was as conservative as Jackie was head strong, but she deferred to him on everything. He helped her start a cosmetics company, and told her that if she wanted to introduce a new product during a depressed economy, she’d have to learn to fly.

The flying course was supposed to be for six weeks, but Husky, her instructor, planned to get rid of her on the first trip up. He took her through a dizzyling round of loops, spins and rolls, and when she pointed down, he thought he had her. He was surprised when she only wanted a time out for a hot dog and a coke. Husky later told the New York Times that she was a “natural,” and soloed after only 48 hours from the time she stepped into the cockpit!

Jackie’s instincts served her well. She began entering flying races and won again and again. She met Amelia Earhart who-like Jackie- was a strong advocate for women being allowed to serve as pilots in the military. Both lobbied for the government for the cause, and as both had married rich men, their husband’s campaign contributions helped open doors for them. Jackie didn’t care about party affiliation; she was a frequent hostess and friend to both presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson. 

Whether pursuing an activity; golf, aviation, business or politics, Jackie raged at obstacles placed in her path because she was female. Amelia always behaved like a lady, but Jackie could be rude and often offensive. She used profanity to a degree that made Floyd blush, but the two women from obviously different backgrounds became close friends, and Amelia became a frequent guest at the Odlum’s ranch.

As war broke out, the Army and Air Force were one unit, which included a women’s auxiliary, the WAFS. Jackie wanted the Air Force to have its own auxiliary with her as its director. She had trained female pilots in Britain, and wanted to do the same for American women. She asked Eleanor Roosevelt to convince FDR that the two military groups should separate, and Floyd’s money helped convince Congressional leaders. In 1943, the two services separated, and the WAFS program was approved.

This did not please everyone. Both the WAFS and the WASPS suffered constant harassment from disgruntled males who disliked women on their turf. Some men tried to kill them by putting sugar in their fuel tanks and holes in their parachutes. Cornelia Fort was killed when a male pilot hit her plane with his landing gear, causing her to crash. The crash was labeled and accident and no charges were filed against the male pilot. 

Women pilots served as chauffeurs, flying “Top Brass” from one location to another, and ferried planes, weapons, and instruments where needed, including into combat zones. This freed male pilots for combat missions, which women were not allowed to accept. WASPS flew 78 different kinds of aircraft in every kind of weather, and records show that in terms of percentage, they had a far better safety record that did male pilots. 

Because they were a volunteer group, they were not considered military, and they received none of the benefits male pilots were given. They had to pay their own way home, and the families of those killed in service had to pay for shipping their bodies home. They could not display a gold star for a child lost in service nor could they benefit from death insurance. This changed when the draft ended, but only because the country needed volunteers for military service. In 1967, President Jimmy Carter had the WASPS recognized as military, and finally, service women became eligible for the GI Bill of Rights, which had enabled so many males to receive a college education. 

Even so, WASPS did not regret their service. One said she didn’t care what she was paid. “I would have paid them if they had just let me keep flying.”

They appreciated the opportunity to serve and did not forget who made it possible. They knew it was Jackie Cochran who opened the door for them, and they never forgot it.

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