On January 17, 1991, the world watched in wonder as its television sets showed stealth fighters, air-launched cruise missiles and precision guided munitions gut the Iraqi air defense system during the opening hours of Desert Storm. None knew then, and few know now, that the path for these high tech wonders was prepared by the United States Air Force First Air Commando Wing, which does its fighting in the old fashioned way—down and dirty.
The First Air Command Wing is comfortable with its low profile, for it can trace its history back to two of the most colorful men in aviation, and the First Air Commandos, Colonel Philip Cochran and Major General John Alison.
Cochran, who was immortalized in his own lifetime as “Colonel Flip Corkin” in Milton Caniff’s famous comic strip Steve Canyon was an incredible adventurer who proved to be exactly the right man for a tough job: helping another flamboyant adventurer, General Orde Wingate, win back Burma from a tough Japanese enemy in 1944. Alison was a veteran eight-victory Flying Tiger ace, who could fly anything and was a gifted administrator.
Cochran first catapulted—literally—in to combat in 1942, flying Curtiss P-40s off Navy ships to engage the Germans in North Africa. There, in true comic strip fashion, he organized a completely unofficial pick up squadron of P-40 pilots. As his unit appeared on no official roster, Cochran began to conduct independent operations, flying against Rommel’s aircraft in Southern Tunisia.
Despite his totally unorthodox, irregular and in fact illegal approach Cochran’s “Joker Squadron” as he had dubbed it, impressed General Jimmy Doolittle with its results, so that it soon expanded to more than 2,000 men and had fighters, bombers and transports to operate with.
Cochran’s reputation had grown so rapidly that he came to the notice of General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who had just had a new requirement placed on his shoulders by none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt had just attended the Quebec Conference, and there had been introduced by Winston Churchill to the unorthodox British Brigadier General Orde Wingate. Wingate was as eccentric as Stonewall Jackson had been, and had just been badly beaten in Burma by the Japanese, who had sent his “Chindits” packing, leaving their dead and wounded behind.
Wingate told Roosevelt that he could go back in and beat the Japanese in 1944, but that he needed aircraft to carry his wounded and dead out. Roosevelt was sufficiently impressed to call General Arnold and tell him: “Give him what he needs.”
Arnold knew exactly what he needed: Phil Cochran and his long time friend then Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Alison. The two men were tasked to create a force to support Wingate, and were given top priority to do so under the code name “Project Nine.” Arnold even gave them their operating instructions “To hell with the paperwork—go on out and fight.” That suited them fine, for no matter what they wanted—fighters, bombers, transports, gliders, even the brand new helicopter—all they had to do was wave their authorizations and it was theirs. The same was true of personnel, and they soon had created the nucleus of the 1st Air Commando Wing.
Cochran was in an infinitely charming guy, with a deft approach that smoothed the way for the new outfit. The tiny, 5’ 4” Alison was quieter, but a tremendous organizer who understood logistics as well as he understood combat. Friends for years, they worked as one to overcome the time delay and the hideous command situation into which they were being thrust, the China-Burma-India Theater.
There was not nearly the animosity between Allied and Japanese forces as there was between the Allied commanders. General Vinegar Joe Stillwell absolutely hated the “little peanut” as he called Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, the man he was sent to defend. Stillwell was in turn hated by Brigadier General Claire Chennault, the jut-jawed commander of the American Volunteer Group and later the 14th Air Force. In an effort to smooth out the fireworks, Roosevelt had sent an old political friend, Major General Clayton Bissell to operate between Stillwell and Chennault. Needless to say, both men hated him, and he heartily reciprocated. The situation was not improved when Lord Louis Mountbatten was appointed Supreme Allied Commander for Southeast Asia, and quickly became hated by everyone in the chain of command.
It was into this rats nest that Cochran and Alison were plunged, at a time of great need, for the Japanese had succeeded in cutting the Burma Road, and it was imperative to re-establish a ground route from India to China. That was to be Orde Wingate’s task, to lead his Chindits in clearing the Japanese out of Burma, and taking their strangle hold off the supplies to China. If they failed, China might well surrender, and free up more than 1,000,000 Japanese troops for use in the South Pacific.
Cochran and Alison first met the tangled skein of their superior officers at a meeting in Mountbatten’s office. They listened to the listless debate and were startled to hear that Wingate’s mission had to be called off. The quarrelling commanders had at last found something to agree upon: there was no longer enough time for him to march into Burma, reengage the Japanese and defeat them.
Cochran startled them all by standing up and saying “Gentlemen, there is time for a campaign. General Wingate and his men don’t have to walk into Burma—we will fly them in and fly them out. “
Startled, Mountbatten turned and said “Son, you are the first breath of fresh air that I’ve had since I’ve been in this theater.”
With that, Cochran and Alison went to work, creating the first large scale air invasion in Asia. The 1st Air Commando Wing succeeded in putting 12,000 infantry troops behind enemy lines in Burma, and sustained them with airpower. They not only dropped supplies and picked up wounded, but created an independent fighter and bomber force that took the place of heavy artillery and constantly harassed the Japanese.
The invasion was launched on March 5, 1944, with Cochran directing operations and Alison at the controls of an overloaded Waco CG-4A glider—the first time he had ever flown one. It was a night double-tow take-off an extremely hazardous business, but Alison made it and was among the first to land down in the designated landing area “Broadway”.
The Air Commando’s gave Wingate exactly what he needed: troops behind the enemy, cutting them off, and destroying them with air power.
Arnold was absolutely delighted with the results as were Dwight D. Eisenhower and President Roosevelt. Alison and Cochran were recalled to Washington, and assigned the task of setting up new Air Commando units for use in the Pacific and in Europe.
After the war, Cochran went on to a varied career in California that included stunt-flying for films and radio announcing before passing away in 1979. Alison remained in the reserves, rising to the rank of Major General and serving as Vice President of Northrop Aircraft. He remained a vital personality, and was regarded as the “founding father” of the current Air Commandos. He passed away on June 6, 2011 at the age of 98, still charming and helpful until the end.