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Cochran, Philip G. (Terry & the Pirates), COL.
Home Town Erie, PA
Last Address Erie, PA
Date of Passing Aug 26, 1979
Location of Interment Trinity Cemetery - Erie, Pennsylvania
Wall/Plot Coordinates Not Specified
Military Service Number Not Specified
Last Known Activity
Cochran distinguished himself as a daring pilot commanding P-40 fighter planes in N. Africa and as the colorful leader of the 1st Air Commandos during the invasion of Burma. He became a colonel at the age of 33 and earned such honors as the Distinguished Service Medal and British Distinguished Service Order. The Erie native inspired cartoon characters Flip Corkin in “Terry and the Pirates" and Gen. Philerie in “Steve Canyon."
During World War I, the acrobatic and deadly aerial duels of high-flying pilots gripped the imagination of people on both sides of the Atlantic. In the decades that followed, the exploits of pilots were celebrated in motion pictures, novels, and comics, including “Terry and Pirates," a popular strip based around the exploits of Terry Lee, a dashing young world adventurer, created in 1934 by cartoonist Milt Caniff.
Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1910, Phil Cochran wanted to play football but was too skinny, so he made his way through Ohio State by waiting tables and singing in dance bands. After his 1935 graduation, Cochran found that his business degree earned him no job during the Depression, so he entered the Army Air Corps because “it looked like a good way to make a pretty easy living." And, at $75 a month, he earned more than a lot of people did in those days. Cochran soon developed into a first rate pilot.
When the United States entered World War II, Cochran was assigned to a P-40 fighter squadron based in Connecticut. Early in 1941, Cochran approached Milton Caniff, whom he had known at Ohio State, and asked him to design an insignia for the 65th Fighter Squadron group. Some months later, while watching Cochran and other pilots practice fighter airplane maneuvers near Groton, Connecticut, Caniff realized “what potential material they were for Terry characters." After America’s entry into World War II, Caniff had Terry join the United States Army Air Forces. On August 3, 1942, he gave Terry a new companion, the swashbuckling Captain Flip Corkin, whom he based on fellow Buckeye and real life hero: Lieutenant Philip Cochran.
Cochran was soon at the front, having been assigned to lead a group of replacement pilots and planes to North Africa. Cochran’s group seemed forgotten in the mass confusion after the landings; wanting to see action, Cochran took charge of his recruits and took off in pursuit of the war, eventually settling into a small airfield in southern Tunisia. With no unit designation—his men called themselves the “Joker Squadron"—and using British equipment and repairmen, Cochran’s ragtag outfit took to the air, fighting German and Italian pilots, bombing ground units, and earning a reputation as a hard-fighting bunch of pilots. Even though he was an officer, Cochran fraternized with his pilots and considered them friends, which endeared them to him even as they respected his leadership. His deputy commander recalled that Cochran was “a colorful individual, a natural leader. He was aggressive, but not ambitiously so." American correspondents latched on to the colorful leader and soon his name was appearing in headlines around the country. His success also fueled a local war bond drive in Erie that netted more than $15 million in just over a month.
Back in the states to train pilots after the conquest of North Africa, Cochran was ushered into General “Hap" Arnold’s office for reassignment. Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, wanted Cochran and his buddy John Alison to form a new air group to provide support for British forces, known as the “Chindits," who were in India preparing for the invasion of Burma. Under the command of Orde C. Wingate, another unorthodox leader, the British were preparing to push the Japanese out of Burma, but needed air cover. Cochran and Alison were tasked with providing it.
Thus was born the 1st Air Commando Group, comprised of fighters (P-51 Mustangs at first), B-25 bombers, helicopters, cargo planes (the big C-47s), and gliders. Wingate’s method of attack—long-range penetration—demanded special tactics. Using the gliders as attack aircraft, Cochran and Alison would fly behind enemy lines during in the initial waves of troop offensives, using jungle clearings as primitive airfields to enable the British and Indian troops to clear a larger area for the bigger transport planes to land.
Naysayers abounded, telling Cochran that gliders could not be used in the jungle. But Cochran’s infectious optimism helped Wingate get through the tough times in early 1944. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Allied theater commander, once informed Cochran that “you are the only ray of sunshine we have had in this theatre this year." When Project Nine got off the ground, Cochran’s last-minute reconnaissance revealed that one of two clearings was impassible. Even so, the operation proved a resounding success, when 9,000 troops landed 165 miles behind the Japanese front lines. Wingate’s interior raiding helped rout the enemy from Burma and pave the way for better supply lines to China.
Following the end of World War II, Cochran returned to the United States, worked as a historical advisor to Hollywood filmmakers, and then came home to Erie. Here, he obtained a position in his brother’s business, Lyons Transportation Lines, became actively involved in local charities, and assisted in the development of Gannon College. Cochran died in 1979 of a heart attack while fox hunting in New York. Speaking after his death, Milt Caniff said that Cochran “had class. Nobody can ever define it, but you can sense it. He had the ability to always do and say the right thing at the right time. … Some people naturally rise above the crowd. He was one of them."
Beyond the Marker
William Ericsson, “Colonel Phil Cochran . . . A Final Salute. Erie Magazine
(October/November 1979): 8-11.
Distinguished Service Order
Medal and ribbon
Awarded by United Kingdom and Commonwealth
The Chinese Order of Cloud and Banner, 4th Class, given in appreciation for efforts in defence of China against the Japanese and indicating more than nine enemy aircraft shot down.
Philip Cochran (January 29, 1910 – August 26, 1979) was an officer in the United States Army Air Corps. Cochran developed many tactical air combat, air transport, and air assault techniques during the war, particularly in Burma during operations as commander of the 1st Air Commando Group. Cochran was the inspiration behind characters in the Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon by Milton Caniff.
After earning a business degree from Ohio State University in 1935. Cochran enlisted as a pilot in the Army Air Corps because "it looked like a good way to make an easy living."
Cochran had known Milton Caniff at Ohio State and approached him in 1941 to design an insignia for his 65th Fighter Squadron. After watching Cochran's squadron, Caniff thought Cochran and his squadron had potential as characters for comics. Cochran became famous during the war as the model for the character Flip Corkin, a character in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates. Later on in life, Cochran became the model for another character in the Caniff comic strip Steve Canyon. Cochran's character was named General Philerie; a combination of his first name, Phil, and his hometown, Erie.
World War II
Major Cochran led a group of replacement fighter planes and pilots to the North African campaign that he organised into the "Joker Squadron" named because the squadron had no number or official status. His Deputy Commander called him “a colorful individual, a natural leader. "He was aggressive, but not ambitiously so". Cochran soon found himself mentioned in press reports. One example was when flying his P-40, Cochran dropped a 500 pound bomb that skipped directly into the German headquarters at the Hotel Splendida, Kairouan, Tunisia. He destroyed telegraph wires by flying over them with a lead weight on the end of a wire attached to the wing of his pursuit plane, a tactic he would employ later in Burma. By the end of hostilities in the theater, he had shot down two German fighter planes.
Though a fighter pilot, Cochran flew the lead C-47 on Christmas Eve 1942 airdropping paratroopers of the 509th Infantry Regiment to destroy the El Djem Bridge in Tunisia as he knew the area.
Cochran developed a reputation for 'getting the job done', and had little respect for those he believed were needlessly obstructing him, regardless of rank. On one occasion, Cochran clashed with General Henri Giraud, commander of all French forces in North Africa. French ground forces, for whom Phil’s squadron was flying air support, had been badly mauled by army units under the command of General Erwin Rommel. In a meeting between Cochran and Giraud after the battle, Giraud shouted at Cochran, "There should be more planes, hundreds more!" Cochran retorted, "You’ve got to fight on the ground! You can’t hide behind a rock and have planes do the whole job." A few days later, Cochran received a letter from General Giraud, conceding that the former was correct. Not long after, Col. Cochran was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal by the French government.
Cochran, by now a Lieutenant Colonel, and former deputy commander of the 75th Fighter Squadron John Alison were picked by General Hap Arnold as commander and deputy commander respectively of the 1st USAAF Air Commando Group. The 1st Air Commando, among other missions, was assigned the task of supporting Allied Long Range Penetration Groups invading Japanese-held Burma. Some of these forces were designated to fly in by towed gliders; all required resupply by regular airdrops during their missions, as well as air support. Under Cochran's command, the 1st Air Commando's C-47 pilots perfected the tactic of snatching loaded gliders from small areas of ground cleared of jungle vegetation into the air using stretchable nylon ropes, all while flying at 15 to 30 feet using breaks in the jungle canopy. Upon witnessing one of these demonstrations, the Allied theater commander, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten exclaimed, "Jesus Christ All Bloody Mighty!"
Col. Cochran ordered the 1st Air Commando to support ground troops without reservation: his sense of humor, aggressiveness, and willingness to risk his planes and pilots in daring support missions soon won the admiration of many officers and men of the Indian Army, who had up to that point had experienced only lackluster support from hard-pressed Royal Air Force squadrons. In particular, the news that Cochran would make light planes and gliders (snatched from the ground by low-flying C-47s) available to evacuate wounded men from combat greatly increased the morale of the long-range jungle penetration forces. One British commander summed up the change by stating, "The commanders' hopes and the soldiers' morale rose sky-high. Now, if we got hit in the middle of Burma, we would not be left under a bush to die." Cochran’s infectious confidence and unstinting support for Allied operations in Burma caused Admiral Mountbatten to remark to Cochran "My boy, you are the only ray of sunshine we have had in this theatre this year."
1st Air Commando was also called upon to perform ground support missions for the Long Range brigades, including bombing and strafing attacks. In one incident, where the group's P-51 Mustangs failed to down a single telephone line on wooden poles using bombs, the P-51's used a more daring tactic: "The lead plane swooped and banked...his lower wing tip ripped momentarily across an open space in the jungle, perhaps three feet above the ground...the second plane swerved...straight at us out of the land in a tight turn, wing tip brushing the ground...[We saw] telephone wire hanging around in festoons at the edge of the jungle."
Cochran was director of aerial scenes in the Howard Hughes film Jet Pilot starring John Wayne and Janet Leigh.
Col. Cochran eventually retired from the USAAF, returning home to Erie, Pennsylvania USA. There he joined his brother John's company, Lyons Transportation Lines, where he would eventually become Chairman of the Board.
Cochran also became active in charitable organizations such as the Pennsylvania Heart Association. He was a consistent supporter for Erie's Gannon University, and attended many USAAF reunions. Cochran died of a heart attack while fox hunting in Geneseo, New York in 1979.