Remembering Colonel Philip G. Cochran

  • Published
  • By W. Keith Anderson
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Historian Office
On Jan. 26 the 1 SOW wore blue uniforms in honor of Col. Philip G. Cochran, United States Army Air Force. A World War II hero, Colonel Cochran served as the commanding officer for the 1st Air Commando Group in the China-India-Burma Theater. 

On Jan. 29, 1910, Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Cochran welcomed the birth of their second son, Philip Gerald, in Erie, Penn. As members of the Roman Catholic faith, the Cochran family belonged to Saint Andrew's Parish and Phil attended Emerson School where he served as an altar boy and sang in the church choir. Following Emerson, Phil enrolled in Erie Central High School, where he graduated in 1927. During this time, the future colonel showed an interest in mechanics. According to one source, Phil fixed bicycles and "later, the family's Model T car." He also displayed a strong work ethic and affection for sports such as football and horseback riding. 

After graduation, Phil wanted to attend Ohio State University. In order to raise money, he took a job at a paper mill and after saving enough to pay for college, he was accepted to the University, where he studied business administration. Throughout the school year, he did odd jobs such as waiting tables. He also enlisted in the Reserve Officers Training Corps during this period. Upon graduation from OSU in 1935, Phil proclaimed his dislike of paperwork and anything relating to business administration. 

After graduation, Phil arrived at Randolph Field, Texas, where he was one of 110 flying cadets. Almost a year later, 2nd Lt. Phil Cochran was one of 20 graduates to receive his Air Reserve officer's commission. Almost four years passed before he earned his appointment to the Regular Army. 

By 1941, Capt. Cochran had transferred to a fighter squadron, which flew the P-40 Warhawk at Groton, Conn. Within months, he was called "Mr. P-40" by his colleagues, who admired his flying abilities. In fact, many of the P-40 World War II tactics were developed by Capt. Cochran. It was during this time he became the model for the comic character Flip Corkin. Apparently, Phil's college friend, Milton Caniff, wanted to add aviation characters to his comic strip, "Terry and the Pirates." Mr. Caniff visited Capt. Cochran's squadron, where he studied the pilots. This comic character became very popular in America. 

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II. Newly promoted Maj. Cochran led a group of replacement P-40 pilots into North Africa. There, Maj. Cochran referred to his unit as the "Joker Squadron" since they had no official affiliation with any other squadron. His squadron performed well, earning him the praises of his colleagues and superiors for his "organizational skills," as well as his "excellence at training and tactics...." 

Although a bit unorthodox at times, Maj. Cochran accomplished the job. One time, for example, he skipped a bomb into the German headquarters in Tunisia. On another occasion, Maj. Cochran dangled a lead weight from his aircraft, which he used to take out enemy telephone lines by dragging the weight through the lines. He also helped train the 99th Fighter Squadron, which consisted of all African-American pilots, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. An early advocate for the desegregation of the American military, Lt. Col. Cochran briefed the Air Force staff about the Tuskegee Airmen upon his return to the United States in early 1943. 

Col. Cochran's successes brought him to the attention of General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, the commanding officer of the United States Army Air Forces. Gen. Arnold needed a commanding officer for Project 9, a top secret force being developed for fighting the Japanese in the China-Burma-India Theater. In June 1943, Col. Cochran returned home, where he helped to raise funds for the war, and trained P-47 pilots at Mitchell Field. That summer, Gen. Arnold chose Col. Cochran to command Project 9, which was the 1st Air Commando Group's antecedent. He also assigned Col. Cochran's friend, Lt. Col. John R. Alison to serve as his deputy. 

Throughout the remainder of the year, Col. Cochran and Lt. Col. Alison built the new unit from the ground up into a fighting force. This unit consisted of bombers, gliders, transports, light planes, heavy planes, and helicopters. More importantly, Col. Cochran's unit contained all volunteers for this dangerous assignment, which was to support and sustain the "Chindits" by operating at primitive airfields developed behind the Japanese lines in Burma. 

In late December 1943, Col. Cochran's unit started arriving in India. Once there, they reassembled their aircraft, and conducted training with the "Chindits." In early February 1944, Col. Cochran's command received their first battle directive. Within weeks of receiving this directive, they commenced Operation Thursday. During the next three months, the 1st Air Commando Group moved 9,000 Chindits and animals to jungle airstrips. Furthermore, they evacuated the wounded, delivered supplies, and fought the Japanese. According to one author, "the Air Commandos and the Chindits drove the Japanese from Burma and protected India from attack." 

Following the war's end, Colonel Cochran resigned from the United States Army Air Forces in November 1946. During his career, he earned numerous awards including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. In his post war career, Col. Cochran worked as an advisor to Howard Hughes' movie, "Jet Pilot." He also served as the chairman for Lyons Transportation Lines. On Aug. 25, 1979, he suffered a fatal heart attack while horseback riding. During 1994, the Air Force Special Operations Command honored Col. Cochran by naming their headquarters building after him.