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Filing Cabinet - Pearl Harbor

Jackie Cochran

Jacqueline Cochran, cosmetics executive and world-famous aviatrix, was the product of obscure origins.  Born Bessie Pittman about 1906 in northwest Florida, she was the youngest of five children of Ira and Mary (Grant) Pittman.  The Pittmans were an impoverished family that moved from one town to another in search of work.  Even as a child, Bessie possessed an unusual amount of drive and ambition.  She resented the limited opportunities available to her in such an environment, especially after she was told the Pittmans were not her real parents, but had merely raised her from infancy.  At an early age Bessie left home and changed her name to “Jacqueline Cochran.”  Although she renounced the Pittman name, and never publicly revealed the identity of her foster family, she remained in contact with her foster parents and later contributed to the support of their children and grandchildren.

After briefly studying to be a nurse, Ms. Cochran obtained a job in a beauty parlor in Pensacola, Florida.  In 1932 she was working as a beautician in an exclusive store in New York City.  Shortly thereafter, she began developing her own line of cosmetics.  In the mid-thirties, she founded her own company, Jacqueline Cochran Incorporated.

Although her cosmetics business brought her widespread recognition, Ms. Cochran is chiefly remembered for her aeronautical activities.  In 1932, while living in New York City, a friend offered her a ride in an airplane.  Entranced by the flight, Ms. Cochran took flying lessons and made her first solo flight after only a few hours instruction.  She later bought her own plane and flew it around the country while developing her cosmetics business.

From her earliest days as a pilot, Ms. Cochran was interested in air racing.  During the 1930s, she entered as many races as she could.  The first was the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race from London to Melbourne, Australia.  She also entered the annual National Air Races and in 1938 became the first woman to win the prestigious Bendix Trophy.

Ms. Cochran’s racing activities in the 1930s brought her a wide acquaintance among the famous pilots of the day.  An especially close friend was Amelia Earhart who spent several days relaxing at Ms. Cochran’s ranch prior to departing on her ill-fated flight around the world in 1937.  Other friends who were famous pilots included Ben Howard, Paul Mantz, Tex Rankin and Roscoe Turner.  Ms. Cochran was also active in various aeronautical organizations, particularly the National Aeronautical Association (NAA), and the Ninety-Nines, a group of professional women pilots.

By 1941 Jacqueline Cochran was one of the most famous women pilots in the United States.  Keenly aware of the Nazi threat to Europe, she approached the U.S. Army Air Corps and suggested the possibility of using women as ferry pilots in wartime.  When her initial proposals were turned down she went to England (becoming in the process the only woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic in World War II) and volunteered her services to the Royal Air Force.  For several months she worked for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), a branch of the Royal Air Force.  Her work involved recruiting qualified women pilots in the United States and taking them to England where they joined the ATA.

In 1942, following U.S. entry into World War II, the Air Force recognized the need for additional pilots.  Ms. Cochran’s earlier proposals were resurrected and she was invited back to the U.S. to head a program for training women pilots.  As head of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) she supervised the training of over one thousand women, many of whom performed distinguished service flying experimental Air Force planes.

From Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library

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