With research institutions across the country now physically re-opening after months of Covid shutdowns, I recently heard back from the Eisenhower Presidential Library about an inquiry I made many months ago. Because this library holds the historical files of Jackie Cochran, I wondered if there might be any info about Joan’s experience of being tested for the First Lady Astronaut Trainees program, a.k.a. Mercury 13.
While I didn’t end up finding any info about Joan’s involvement in the program, I did find a series of letters catalogued between Jackie, Joan, the National Aeronautic Association, and others that shed some additional light on the events that unfolded following Joan’s 1964 world solo flight.
When the package containing the copied materials from archives arrived in the mail, I was excited to see what was inside. Prior to this, the only correspondence I’d seen from Jackie regarding Joan’s flight was a letter that she had written to the NAA on Joan’s behalf courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution’s archives. Individuals involved in the new correspondence that I received include:
- Jackie Cochran, famed aviatrix and honorary lifetime president of National Aeronautic Association (NAA)
- Floyd Odlum, Jackie’s husband, and one of richest men in the U.S. at the time
- Colonel Mitchell Giblo, Executive Director of the NAA
- William Ong, President of the NAA
- M.J. “Randy” Randleman, Secretary of Contest Board under Mitchell Giblo, NAA
- Ruth Deerman, outgoing President of the 99s
- Alice Roberts, incoming President of the 99’s
- Joan Merriam Smith
- John Sarver, Joan’s PR Person
- Peg Schroeder, friend of Joan’s and head of “Citizens committee for recognition for Joan Merriam Smith”
- Two U.S. congressmen
While reading through these letters, there was a lot to unpack. There’s nothing quite reading actual history vs. someone else’s account of it! I also couldn’t help but think about how much more complicated communication seemed back then having to write formal letters, copy them out in the mail to everyone, and then retain paper copies. Email is so much easier.
Below follows a top-level overview of the correspondence, along with direct links to a couple of these letters for historical value.
- May 12, 1964 – Joan becomes first person in history to fly solo around the world at the equator, the first person to complete the longest single solo flight around the world, the first woman to fly a twin-engine aircraft around the world, the first woman to fly the Pacific Ocean from west to east in a twin-engine plane, and the youngest woman to complete a solo flight around the world.
- Following Joan’s flight, John Sarver (Joan’s press person) sends out letters to multiple agencies and individuals attempting to find a way to have her flight more formally recognized. In July of 1964 Sarver received a letter from the FAA telling him that there was nothing they could do to help Joan get recognition for her flight.
- Joan next reached out to Jackie Cochran directly for help by telegram. (Download telegram)
- Jackie’s husband Floyd responded the next day to Joan’s telegram, and he also drafted a response letter for Jackie to send to Joan. In his drafted letter he included a note to Jackie that said: “Maybe a show of interest in Mrs. Smith’s problem along the lines of the attached draft letter would be a good on the record action for you irrespective of results accomplished.” (Download telegram)
- Next, Jackie reached out to Colonel Mitchell Giblo, executive director of the NAA for more info, and said she would be in DC soon and would make an appointment before coming to the office.
- Jackie received a formal response from the NAA, then sent another letter asking follow-up questions to NAA’s secretary of the contest board, Randy Randleman.
- After receiving a response that Jackie felt was sufficient from Col. Giblo with a copy of a letter written from Randleman to Ong, she explained to NAA in another letter that she felt satisfied with the actions taken.
- During this time, Jackie received a letter from Joan thanking her for looking into the matter. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
- On 9/14/64, Jackie wrote a letter to Joan summarizing her findings after inquiring about her world flight with the NAA. Jackie explained to Joan that she understood her disappointment but that there was nothing more that she could do. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
- On 9/16/64, Jackie sent Joan another letter acknowledging receipt of her first letter, which she didn’t receive until after her 9/14/64 response. (Download letter)
- From here, Joan decided to send Jackie a follow up letter on 9/17/64 explaining what “really” happened, in that she felt there was favoritism. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2)
- Jackie’s secretary then responded saying that Jackie was out of the country for a month. (Download letter)
- Incidentally, in this very same month of September of 1964, Jackie was featured on the cover of National Aeronautics Magazine, which was a quarterly publication of the National Aeronautic Association, edited by William Ong, with feature stories by Col. Giblo. (View the publication)
- After Joan died, a woman by the name of Peg Schroeder reached out on behalf of a citizen’s committee to gain recognition for Joan in the form of a commemorative stamp to celebrate Earhart and Joan’s accomplishments. (Download letter)
- Jackie clearly did not like this idea as she wrote a condescending letter back to Peg in July of 1965, in which she said “I think you and those on your committee may be emotionally carried away by the fact that Miss Smith is dead. She was killed in an airplane accident when the wing of her light plane pulled off. Of course this was a structural failure, but whether the plan was structurally weak or had a stress put on it beyond its designed strength, I do not believe, has yet been officially determined.” Jackie copied NAA’s executive director on this letter. (Download letter: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3)
- Jackie next reached out to the incoming and outgoing presidents of the 99s, she reached out to two congressmen, and also followed up with the NAA.
- The NAA (Giblo’s) response to Jackie on 7/22/65 was “congratulations for sending the type of reply that Peg Schroeder deserved.” (Download letter)
After reading all of these letters, my main takeaways were these: 1) If there truly was any favoritism, Jackie was not asking the right questions to NAA 2) What would Jackie have gained anyway from telling the NAA that they were wrong in how they handled the sanction process between Joan and Jerrie? 3) What reason would there have been for Jackie to have pressed the issue considering she had never even met Joan and also had close ties to NAA leadership? 4) Since Jackie was a close friend of Earhart’s, and together she and Earhart were among the most accomplished women in aviation history, it seemed to me that asking for her support to create a “Joan Merriam Smith-Amelia Earhart Aviation Day” after Joan’s death was a bad idea. The reasoning is evident in her July 1965 letter, as Jackie felt Joan’s supporters were somehow trying to equalize Joan and Amelia when all they were trying to do was find a creative way to get Joan some recognition.
In conclusion, I felt that Joan had noble intentions, and Jackie intended to help her so long as it was convenient to do so, but that’s about the extent of what could be expected given her stature and her political ties. If you’ve followed along this far, would love to hear your thoughts!
If there’s one thing I have learned in this research, it’s that most information about Joan is buried in historical archives such as this and not easily findable. Needless to say, the treasure hunt continues!