Cornelia Fort and World War II

July 11, 2017

For Cornelia Clark Fort, as for most other Americans, December 7th, 1941 began as a quiet Sunday morning.

It started out as an otherwise normal day as she embarked on a civilian training flight near Pearl Harbor airspace. While in the middle of teaching takeoffs to her civilian student pilot, Cornelia became one of the first people to experience what would later become known as America’s “Day of Infamy.”

At approximately 0755, a Japanese aerial fleet flew into Pearl Harbor and launched a surprise assault on the ships lined up at Battleship Row. Nearby airfields also caught the attention of Japan’s bombers as they sought to ground American aircraft to prevent a potential counterattack.

While civilians weren’t intended to be in direct danger of the incoming assault, it was inevitable that some would become casualties of the attack. While Cornelia Clark Fort was among the first to encounter the Japanese, she wasn’t among the 68 civilians who were killed during the attack.

Fort’s Japanese Encounter

Piloting an Interstate Cadet monoplane, Fort was in the air with a handful of other civilian aircraft on the morning of December 7th. While circling near Pearl Harbor, she noticed a military plane flying in her path, heading directly towards her. Unaware of any American military craft in the sky that Sunday morning, she quickly took the controls from her student and pulled up over the craft.

Japanese Zero fighter taking off from the Akagi, December 7, 1941

As her plane flew above the military craft, Fort noted the Rising Sun insignia painted on the plane’s wings. Why the Japanese were in American airspace was a question she'd get the answer to moments later, when smoke started to billow out over Pearl Harbor. She then saw more and more Japanese aircraft filling the sky. Before she knew it, a Zero fighter plane was pursuing her, but she was able to ground her Interstate Cadet at the nearby John Rodgers Airport, a civilian facility that's now Honolulu International Airport.

Fort escaped her pursuer, and while she and her student survived the attack, the airport manager and two other civilian planes weren’t as lucky.

Fort in World War II

Cornelia Clark Fort lived through the Pearl Harbor attack as a civilian pilot, but she soon emerged as a spokesperson for the US military, appearing in short films promoting the sales of war bonds. Her work on camera attracted the attention of Nancy Love, a recruiter for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, which ferried military planes to air bases across the United States.

The former training pilot was the second to have been recruited into WAFS, which later became the Women Airforce Service Pilots, though she didn’t live to see that change. Fort successfully ferried planes and stayed far from any sort of combat, but she died on March 21st, 1943 when an American pilot accidentally struck the wing of her BT-13.

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