On the clear Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, flight instructor Cornelia Fort was flying with a student pilot named Suomala. They had risen from the runway at Honolulu’s John Rodgers Airport to practice take-offs and landings before Suomala was to solo. To the west lay Pearl Harbor and its crowded, still dormant naval base. Just 22 years old and a pilot of less than two years, Cornelia was one of the United States’ most experienced aviators, earning her commercial and instructor’s licenses within a year. Leaving behind her family’s Nashville estate, she had been working for two months since October at Honolulu’s Andrew Flying Service.
Just prior to the last landing that Suomala was to make before soloing, Cornelia looked around and saw a military plane coming in from the sea. Being used to military traffic and the respective safety zones, she noted its position and turned to look around to see if clear to make the last turn into the field. She then saw the other plane coming directly toward hers at the same altitude. Jerking the controls away from her student, Cornelia jammed the throttle wide open to pull above the oncoming plane. The red ball emblem on the tops of its wings glared brightly in the sun. She recognized the emblem as that of the Rising Sun, previously only seen on passenger ships, and then she looked at Pearl Harbor in utter disbelief as billowing black smoke rose up from the harbor. She thought it might be some kind of military maneuver or practice until she saw a formation of silver bombers flying in. But then, something detached itself from one of the bombers, and she watched it as it glistened in the light of the dawn, exploding in the middle of the harbor below.
As Cornelia began her descent, she heard a burst of machine-gun fire and realized it was intended for her plane and that the sky was not the place to be. Touching down, Suomala broke the silence, asking whether he was going to solo. Cornelia later recounted saying something to the effect of, ‘’Not today, brother!” A shadow passed over them, and bullets spattered all around, ripping into the little airplane behind her as she and Suomala sprinted toward the hangar for cover.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a total of 2,335 military personnel were killed, including 2,008 Navy personnel, 109 Marines, 218 Army, and an additional 68 civilians. 1,143 were wounded. And in a remarkable twist of fate, Cornelia Fort became the first eyewitness to the attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the United States was plunged into a war on two fronts in the European Theater of Operations and the Pacific Theater of Operation. The furious increase in warplane production resulted in an acute labor shortage of male pilots needed for overseas combat duty. Before its hour of desperate need, it was proposed that women pilots could alleviate that shortage by performing vital flying duties on the U.S. Homefront that would release male pilots for overseas duty. The proposals were set about separately by two renowned pilots, Nancy Harkness Love and Jacqueline Cochran.
In August 1942, Nancy Love was assigned to recruit a small experimental group of highly qualified civilian female pilots at New Castle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware to transition to ferry (transport) military aircraft for the United States Army Air Forces in 1942. This group of 28 original women pilots was known as the Women Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or WAFS. Of the 28 original WAFS, Cornelia Fort was the third to report for duty at New Castle. Cornelia wrote:
“Because there were and are so many disbelievers in women pilots, especially in their place in the Army, officials wanted the best qualifications to go with the first experimental group. We had to deliver the goods, or else. Or else there wouldn’t ever be another chance for women pilots in any part of the service. I for one, am profoundly grateful that my one talent, my only knowledge…flying, happens to be of use to my country when it is needed. That’s all the luck I ever hope to have.”
In September of that same year, Jacqueline Cochran directed a broad-scale, months-long training program that would teach large groups of women pilots with less experience than the WAFS to learn to fly ‘the Army Way’ and this program was called the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, or WTFD.
By August 1943, the WAFS and the WFTD merged to become known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. In just over the two years that the WASP served their country between 1942 and December 1944, the WASP flew in every capacity of duty except combat, logging 60,000,000 miles in every type of aircraft in the U.S. Army Air Forces arsenal at over 120 airbases throughout the United States.
On December 7, 1944, just two weeks prior to the deactivation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the Commanding General of the USAAF, Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, addressed the final graduating class of WASP and stated, “Frankly, I didn’t know in 1941 whether a slip of a young girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather. Well, now, in 1944, we can come to only one conclusion, the WASP have completed their mission. Their job has been successful. They have proven that if called upon again, they could fly wingtip to wingtip with their brothers. But as is usual in war, the cost has been heavy, and WASP have died while helping their country move toward final victory. The Air Forces will long remember their service and sacrifice.”
Thirty-Eight WASP died in service to Country. On March 21, 1943, when the plane she was ferrying from Long Beach, California to Dallas collided in mid-air with another plane in formation, Cornelia Fort, at age 24, became the first woman pilot to die on active duty.
In a letter to her mother, Cornelia wrote, “If I die violently, who can say it was before my time?…. I was happiest in the sky at dawn, when the quietness of the air was like a caress, when the noon sun beat down, and at dusk when the sky was drenched with the fading light. Think of me there and remember me, I hope, as I shall you.” Love, Cornelia
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