Cornelia Fort: Debutante, Aviatrix, Pilot During the Pearl Harbor Attacks
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Strange History.net brings us the movie-worthy story of Cornelia Fort, an upperclass girl from Nashville, Tennessee whose father made one critical mistake when he called his three sons into his study and made them swear a solemn oath on the Bible that they would never take to flying aeroplanes.
He didn’t think it would be necessary to ask Cornelia to swear it too. And in 1940, at the age of twenty-three, Cornelia did begin flying planes, and in a matter of months was employed as a flying instructor in Honolulu, Hawaii. Which is how she found herself in one of the small handful of civilian planes that were the only American aircraft in the skies on the morning of December 7th, when Japanese aircraft and submarines began the Pearl Harbor attacks.
Cornelia spotted a silver airplane surfing in from sea straight towards her. She, at first, registered irritation and then her instincts fired. She took the controls from her trainee and climbed as fast as the throttle would allow her. She was only just in time. The Japanese plane – its imperial insignia clearly visible – swept under her and rattled the civilian craft. If anyone doubts that she was in terrible danger consider this: as she landed another instructor and trainee were torn apart on a Japanese strafing run.
She and her student survived, after getting a birds-eye view of smoke and bombers over Pearl Harbor, and being strafed by enemy fire as they ran from her Interstate Cadet monoplane to cover. Such an experience made Fort a small celebrity, starring in a short promotional movie for war bonds. When Commander Nancy Love was asked to recruit 29 experienced female pilots in an effort to bolster a military now scouring the country for civilian pilots who could ferry existing and newly manufactured military planes across America to bases where they could be used… Fort was the second woman accepted into the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron.
Though the WAFS was only deployed within the borders of the US, that doesn’t mean the job was completely without risk. Fort was killed in 1943 when another plane struck the wing of BT-13 she was ferrying in midair, ten miles from Merkel, Texas. Her grave is marked with the words “Killed in the Service of her Country.” She was the first woman in history to die in active service in a branch of the US Armed Forces.
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