On the morning of 7 December 1941, Cornelia Fort was giving a flying lesson over Honolulu, Hawaii. The weather was a mild 70 degrees, the skies partly cloudy. Her student, Ernest Suomala, was doing well in his last training run before his first solo flight, but she noticed a glint in the distance. Other flying lessons were going on, so she needed to be wary of approaching aircraft, but this was not a plane she recognized. It was flying straight at them, as if on purpose. She wrested the controls from Suomala, pulling the plane up and banking to avoid a collision. As they passed closely over the aggressor, she could see red suns painted on the wings. With another check of the horizon, she could see the approaching formation of Japanese fighters, as well as the smoke already billowing from Pearl Harbor. Time was precious, and she raced back to the municipal airport, John Rodgers Field. The Zero shot at them in the sky, and a different one shot at them on the airport runway, but she and Suomala survived. Cornelia was only 22 years old.
A Groove in the Sky
Cornelia Fort was born on 5 February 1919 in Nashville, Tennessee, the daughter of a very wealthy family. The expectation was for her to be a socialite, marry well, and stay “Southern.” Cornelia’s father, Dr. Rufus Fort, was a successful surgeon, hospital director, and one of the founders of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. Her mother, Louisa Clark Fort, was a member of the various social organizations common among Nashville’s elite and founder of the Nashville Gardening Club. Cornelia was granted the freedom of a tomboy’s childhood, swimming in the river and riding horses, eventually learning to fox hunt with her brothers. She was not afforded the same expectations that her father had for her brothers, however, a point that seemed to stick in her craw. The family tells the story of Dr. Fort making the three boys swear on a Bible to never fly in an airplane, because he deemed them far too dangerous. He didn’t make Cornelia swear to any similar limitation, not that it would have likely stopped her if he had.
After graduating from high school, her father insisted that she attend the all-female Ogontz School and Junior College because of its reputation as being a good school, but one that also offered military drilling like her brothers had experienced at Virginia Military Institute (and also because it was a rather frugal option). Coincidentally, Amelia Earhart had attended Ogontz for three semesters between 1916 and 1918, too. Cornelia hated it, but made the most of activities outside of her classes. She wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence College, but Dr. Fort deemed it too expensive and far too liberal. It didn’t fit with his expectation of his daughter, but after a year at Ogontz, she (and her mother) convinced Dr. Fort to let her transfer to Sarah Lawrence. This is when Cornelia made friends with other young women from across the country, broadening her world view and learning about the growing tensions in Europe. She stayed for two years, earning an associate degree.
She returned to Nashville in 1939, and jumped into the social scene, as was expected of her. She belonged to various social clubs around Nashville, attended parties and carried on with society life. On one chance outing with friend Betty Rye, she was invited to fly in a plane with Jack Caldwell, Betty’s boyfriend. That single flight was enough to instantly enchant Cornelia. She literally signed up for a flying lesson the same day, waiting for the chance as she paced along the runway smoking cigarettes and chatting Betty’s ear off about that first flight. Within a week, she had flown enough hours to fly solo. One of her brothers tried to shame her for breaking the promise not to fly, but she reminded him that their father had not included her in that oath. Sadly, Dr. Fort passed away after a long illness on 22 March 1940.
Cornelia did not give much pause in her life to mourn her father. She had found her life’s passion and pursued it with serious intent. Her first solo flight was on 27 April 1940, and she earned her private pilot’s certificate on 19 June 1940. She began flying herself on excursions, but started working as a pilot taking passengers on short flights and worked her way up to being a factory transport flier, delivering planes to their destinations. She earned a commercial license on 8 February 1941, closely followed by her instructor’s rating on 10 March 1941. She progressed from her first time in an airplane to being an instructor in roughly a year!
She soon became a flight instructor in Nashville but began applying to different flight schools around the country. She was first accepted by the Massey-Ransom Flying Service, working out of Fort Collins, Colorado to support the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). A few short months later, in September of 1941, she was heading to join the CPTP flight instructors at Andrew Flying Service in Honolulu, Hawaii. As America began a cautious response to the war raging in Europe and Japanese expansion in the Pacific, flying education was in high demand, which is of course how Cornelia found herself in the airspace over Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.
After she and Suomala ran for cover on the airstrip that day, two of the other training flights never returned. The airport manager, Bob Tyce, was killed on the runway by the strafing Japanese fighters. Cornelia, like the other grounded civilian pilots and fliers, was left with little else to do in Honolulu. She left in February of 1942 for the mainland, hoping to get back to the skies again, and eager to fulfill another dream: service to her country. England had female pilots working to ferry planes and delivering the mail and supplies to military bases, and she believed she could provide similar service to her country, freeing up male pilots to join the war efforts as fighters. She had even been extended an invitation to join the Royal Air Force Air Transport Auxiliary in January 1942, but the travel restrictions from Hawaii delayed everything, and she could not report in time. However, in September 1942, she was contacted by Nancy Love to invite her to join the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. She was excited to join and enlisted as part of the first group of female pilots to join the war effort.
After training at New Castle Army Air Force Base in Wilmington, Delaware, Cornelia was stationed at the 6th Ferrying Group’s base in Long Beach, California. Cornelia’s duties during the war mostly entailed ferrying airplanes from base to base. The conditions in the air were tough and dictated by the weather. Letters home detailed being stuck in small towns with nothing to do and bad diner food, as well as beautiful days off in California where she could dine out with friends and enjoy simple things like wearing civilian clothes and roasting marshmallows by the fireplace. The following excerpt explains how she felt about being in the WAFS:
The attitude that most non-flyers have about pilots is distressing and often acutely embarrassing. They chatter about the glamour of flying. Well, any pilot can tell you how glamorous it is. We get up in the cold dark in order to get to the airport by dawn. If the weather is good, we fly all day, usually without lunch. We wear heavy, cumbersome flying suits and 30-pound parachutes. We are either cold or hot and you can’t change clothes very well in the air. We get sunburns and windburns and if female, your lipstick wears off and your hair gets straighter and straighter. You look forward all afternoon to the bath you will have and the steak. Well, we get the bath, but sometimes we are too tired to eat the steak and fall wearily into bed.
None of us can put into words why we fly. It is something different for each of us. I can’t say exactly why I fly, but I know why as I’ve never known anything in my life…I know it in dignity and self-sufficiency and the pride of skill. I know it in the satisfaction of usefulness.
She flew from Long Beach to Dallas so often, she described it as “flying a groove in the sky,” and was even able to write a letter from the cockpit a time or two. She knew where to put down in bad weather, from local airfields to military bases, and was familiar with people all along the way. On 21 March 1943, she was flying a BT-13 out of Tucson, Arizona after an overnight stay. When she stopped to refuel in Midland, Texas, she chatted with six male pilots who were also flying BT-13s to Dallas and had flown out of Long Beach, as well. There was some conversation about flying in formation, although that was against protocol. One of the pilots declined and headed out, but the other five said they’d meet in the sky. After the fact, one pilot said that Cornelia said she’d like to join, and it was confirmed by other WAFS pilots that it was not uncommon to fly in formation regardless of the official rules. The men had been trained quite recently, all of them having under 300 flying hours compared to Cornelia’s more than 1100 hours. They had received combat flying training, though, which involved flying in formation, as well as evasive and attack maneuvers.
Unfortunately, they were also flying without radios and communication between pilots was essentially non-existent. What happened next is without consensus, it seems. One of the male pilots, Frank Stamme Jr., hit Cornelia’s plane with his landing gear. The damage to her plane broke the tip off of her wing and peeled six feet of the metal leading edge off toward the fuselage. It is thought the impact of their collision possibly jarred her cockpit hatch enough to jam it or possibly also render her unconscious. Her plane went into a spin and then a nosedive. The plane hit the earth vertically, burying the engine two feet into the ground. The impact caused catastrophic damage to Cornelia’s body. The crash site was two miles southeast of the small town of Nubia, Texas. Cornelia Fort was the first female active duty pilot to die during World War II, and the first WAFS fatality. She was 24.
Stamme went on to land his plane in Abilene, Texas, believing his landing gear were damaged. The Army investigation found no one at fault and called the incident an accident. Some news reports imply that Cornelia was the inexperienced one who caused the accident, but this is clearly contrary to the fact that she had four times the experience of Stamme. Some WAFS pilots mentioned that male pilots were sometimes cocky and jokesters in the air, taking the teasing of female pilots to the sky, and that Stamme had possibly done something similar. But no one knows for certain what happened.
The WAFS continued their mission to support the war effort on the home front by ferrying new planes across the country, sometimes at record speeds. Cornelia would be followed by an additional 37 women who would lose their lives during World War II. It was not until 1979 that the WAFS pilots would be recognized for their military service and granted the right to be veterans.
Cornelia died nearly three years to the day after her father. She is buried near him in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville. She was memorialized in Nashville with the naming of a local airfield in her honor in 1945. The Cornelia Fort Airpark exists today as a park only after flooding in 2010 ruined the facilities. We may mourn the loss of a bright, energetic, passionate woman, but in her own words, “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.”
Women have played roles in America’s military conflicts since the Revolutionary War, but it wasn’t until the world wars that women were accepted into the armed forces… sort of.
World War I marked the first time that women were allowed to openly serve in the military, although in limited numbers. The U.S. Army Nurse Corps (ANC), established in 1901, deployed over 3,000 nurses to serve in British-operated hospitals near the front lines in France. (These nurses were separate from those serving with the American Red Cross, whom you can read about in Issue 32 of Without a Trace.) The U.S. Army Signal Corps enlisted a unit of about 225 women telephone and switchboard operators who served near the front lines and were known as the “Hello Girls,” and the U.S. Navy enlisted about 12,000 “yeomanettes,” designated with the rank of Yeoman (F), who fulfilled clerical roles and also served as radio and telephone operators and translators. The nurses of the Navy Nurse Corps, established in 1908, peaked at over 1,400 members in 1918 and helped to establish base hospitals and care for soldiers at the front. It was due, in part, to the service of these women that the 19th Amendment, allowing women the right to vote, was propelled forward and eventually passed in 1919.
World War II was the first time that every branch of the armed forces was open to women in order to “free a man to fight,” and over 350,000 women served in non-combat roles from 1941 until the end of the war.
Army - The Army Nurse Corps (ANC) was maintained throughout the second World War, with over 59,000 nurses serving in every theater of war. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) was formed in May 1941 in support of the Army. It wasn’t until 1943, that the word ‘auxiliary’ was dropped and the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) was integrated into the Army. The Army also formed the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in 1943, which began as both the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS; of which, only 40 women held the distinction) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). Note that the Air Force was not created as a separate branch of the United States military until 1947, but count the WASPs among the first women in service of, what was then called, the Army Air Forces.
Coast Guard - In November 1942, legislation was approved to form the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, known as the SPARS - an acronym for the Coast Guard Motto “Semper Paratus” [meaning] Always Ready. Over 10,000 women volunteered for SPARs service between 1942 and 1946.
Navy - The Navy Nurse Corps, although established in 1908, was not designated with full military rank until February 1944. In 1945, flight nurse Ensign Jane Kendeigh became the first nurse to serve in combat as she assisted wounded Marines during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Much like the WACs, women who were part of the Naval Reserve were not integrated into the Navy until 1942; it was then they were given the moniker Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). Over 90,000 women served as part of the WAVES from 1942 until 1946.
Marine Corps - The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established in July 1942 and included 20,000 women who fulfilled over 200 job types at shore establishments from 1942 to 1946. It was estimated that, by the end of the war, 85% of the enlisted personnel at the Marine Corps Headquarters were women.
After the end of the war, the service branches for women were rapidly demobilized and dissolved. Many of the women whose service was integral during the war years were quickly dismissed back to “appropriate” civilian jobs for women and into their roles as housewives and mothers. In 1948, Public Law 625: The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 was passed by the United States Congress and signed into law, authorizing a permanent presence for women in the Regular Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps; it took until 1973 for women to be admitted into the Regular Coast Guard. However, the women of World Wars I and II fought for decades to receive veteran status and the benefits due to them for their service, such as the use of the G.I. Bill and financial payments for the families of female service members.
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