Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #5 – Jackie Cochran

January 17, 2010

Oh sure, we’ve all heard of Amelia Earhart  – and even before the recent movie, many people would at least recognize her name as a famous aviatrix.

But a contemporary of hers was in many ways even more famous. In the late 1930s, she broke record after record. And not just in women’s categories. In 1938, for instance, she won the Bendix cross-country race, even beating out the men, becoming the first woman pilot to do so. After World War II, she kept flying, and became the first female to break the sound barrier in 1953.

Although impressive, these accomplishments are not Cochran’s most important. She – almost single-handedly – helped bring about the establishment of the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) during World War II.  Initially resistant to the idea, Cochran persuaded Gen. Hap Arnold and Eleanor and Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt to make her idea a reality.

More than 1,000 women served in the WASPs, mostly as ferry pilots. These pilots flew all sorts of airplanes – bombers, fighters, trainers – all over the country, from one base to another. They made a valuable contribution to the war effort, freeing up men to be sent overseas for more hazardous duty, and demonstrating that women could be just as effective pilots as the men. They were not officially part of the Army Air Corps, and therefore did not receive military benefits like their male counterparts. Even if they died in the line of WASP duty – the government would not pay for their body to be returned home or buried. That would have to be a family expense. They were still “civilians” after all.

Finally, in 1977, the WASPs recieved the recognition they deserved, at last being accorded formal status as military veterans. And in 2009, they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, a very high honor.

Read more about Jackie Cochran and the WASPs, or watch a short film on YouTube about their service. You can also learn more about Cochran by getting the documentary by American Experience, called Fly Girls.

© writingreading, 2010

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