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Viewpoint: On Pearl Harbor Day, remembering Cornelia Fort

On that sleepy Sunday morning, Cornelia Clark Fort was conducting a civilian training flight when a military plane violated their safety zone as it flew straight toward them. The plane came so close the celluloid windows of her Interstate Cadet monoplane rattled violently. Annoyed by the carless stunt, and looking down at this plane now below her, her emotion quickly changed to dread.

Lois Schaefer, Bottineau, North Dakota
Lois Schaefer /
Contributed
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On Dec. 7, we remember the worst aerial attack in American military history, Japan’s surprise attack on our U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On Pearl Harbor Day we celebrate the spirit of unity and patriotism of all Americans as they came forward to support President Roosevelt, our military and each other. It’s a day to remember and honor our Greatest Generation, but especially those who were there at Pearl Harbor that day, and those that lost their lives; there were so many.

If you have seen the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor,” you might remember the clip of a civilian flight instructor whose plane was suddenly surrounded by Japanese Zeros. In part, that clip was true. On that sleepy Sunday morning, Cornelia Clark Fort was conducting a civilian training flight when a military plane violated their safety zone as it flew straight toward them. The plane came so close the celluloid windows of her Interstate Cadet monoplane rattled violently. Annoyed by the carless stunt, and looking down at this plane now below her, her emotion quickly changed to dread. She recognized the red ball insignia of the Japanese “Rising Sun” that marked the wings of the plane. Cornelia instinctively looked toward the harbor now and saw billows of black smoke that signaled the death below. She looked up and saw several silver bombers approaching in tight formation. She could barely believe what she saw as shiny metallic objects detached from the planes and fell from the sky one after another. Her eyes followed them down and her heart sank as they exploded in the harbor, wreaking more death and destruction.

Cornelia had taken control of the plane from her student and racing away began an emergency descent to Honolulu’s John Rodgers Airport. She had a fighter plane on her six, unloading its machine guns on her little plane. She managed to land safely; she and her student scrambled out of the plane and raced toward the hangar. The shadow of another plane grew larger and larger overhead, bullets piercing the ground around them as bullets from yet another plane strafed the runway. Although others on the ground were killed, Cornelia and her student made it to the hangar, hunkered down, and survived the attack.

The military needed pilots to replace qualified male pilots needed for war that had been delivering warplanes from factories to air bases. Seeing the need for women pilots, Nancy Harkness Love organized the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) out of New Castle Army Air Base in Delaware. Cornelia was among them, excited and honored to serve her country doing what she did best, flying planes. At about the same time, Jacqueline Cochran persuaded Army Air Forces Commander General Henry (“Hap”) Arnold to activate the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) operating out of Howard Hughes Airport in Houston, Texas. The two programs were similar, ferrying planes, towing gunnery targets for live practice, transporting equipment and non-flying personnel, flight-testing aircraft that had been repaired before men were allowed to fly them again, and training male pilots. Yet they operated separately until August of 1943 when they would merge to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Over 25,000 women from all walks of life and almost every state in the nation would apply to willingly serve their country; 1,830 would be accepted. Of that number, over 1,000 would graduate the training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, for a total of 1,102 women pilots. Applicants had to be between the ages of 21-35, possess a commercial pilot license, and have the physical endurance to complete the military training regimen. They were subject to military discipline and military conditions. The WASP was the only unit that flew every type of aircraft in the Army Air Forces from bombers, like the B-24 to fighters like the P-51 Mustang. Together they would serve at more than 120 air bases around the country and fly over 60 million miles.

On March 21, 1943, Cornelia and six male pilots flew together in formation enroute to Dallas, Texas. The pilot next to her, not as experienced as Cornelia, accidentally clipped the wing of Cornelia’s plane and completely snapped it off. Her plane rolled into an inverted dive and slammed into the ground. She was the first female pilot killed in the line of duty in the history of our military and would be joined by 37 other WASP who also made the ultimate sacrifice defending their country.

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With WWII coming to an end, the WASP were disbanded. Their role was not recognized by our military as they were considered part of the civil service. They were denied all veterans’ benefits and were not allowed to join veterans’ organizations. The bodies of the 38 that were killed defending their country were escorted home for burial through funds collected from the other WASP. For most of them, the military didn’t even provide flags for their caskets. Then in 1977 WASP Bee Haydu, Sen. Barry Goldwater and Col. Bruce Arnold formed a coalition to pass legislation to give the WASP veteran status and entitle them to most of the benefits our military veterans received. In 2010, the more than 200 surviving WASP were awarded the highest civilian honor one can receive, the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. The National WASP WWII Museum is located at Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas.

Lois Schaefer, of Bottineau, N.D., is Americanism Chairman of the Department of North Dakota VFW Auxiliary and VFW Aux 8688.

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