Fort, Cornelia (1919–1943)
Fort, Cornelia (1919–1943)
Member of Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) in World War II and first American woman killed on active duty. Born Cornelia Clark Fort on February 5, 1919, in Nashville, Tennessee; died in a plane crash near Abilene, Texas, on March 21, 1943; daughter of Rufus E. Fort, Sr. (a doctor and insurance executive) and Louise (Clark) Fort (a homemaker); graduated from Ward-Belmont private school and Sarah Lawrence College; never married; no children.
Began flight instruction and became second woman to receive commercial pilot's license (1940); served as private flight instructor and taught in Civilian Pilot Training Program in Colorado and in Hawaii (1941); witnessed Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from the air (1941); became second volunteer accepted into WAFS (1942); assigned to Long Beach, California, to ferry planes to Dallas, Texas (February 1943).
"I knew I was going to join the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron before the organization was a reality, before it had a name, before it was anything but a radical idea in the minds of a few men who believed that women could fly airplanes," wrote Cornelia Fort in a 1943 article for Woman's Home Companion. "But I never knew it so surely as I did in Honolulu on December 7, 1941."
Fort was born in 1919 and had grown up in a 24-room mansion, known as Fortland, over-looking the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tennessee. In the warm and wealthy household that included her four brothers and two sisters, she was exposed to books, art, travel and fine food; attended the best local private schools; and enjoyed the particular pleasures of living on a large farm where she could roam with her horses and dogs. A bright student with an excellent academic record, Fort was bookish but also popular among the "sub-debs," girls whose families would formally present them to society at a debutante ball. Her debut was a gala affair held at Nashville's most fashionable country club during her Christmas vacation from Sarah Lawrence College in 1938.
Sarah Lawrence, in Bronxville, New York, was far from Southern culture in distance as well as thought. The choice of this liberal women's institution had dismayed Fort's traditionalist father, but he must have recognized her yearning for something different. At the school, her talents were rewarded with the position of chief editorial writer for the newspaper, The Campus. In an editorial published in November 1938, when the attention of the American public was being drawn to events in Europe, Fort wrote of Hitler's atrocities:
But surely this campaign of horror will turn on its creator and smash him also. Surely this wave of barbarism will weaken the ranks of Fascism and restore the faculty of healthy criticism to the mobs blinded with enthusiasms—We shall aid the persecuted Jews with one hand and try to hasten retribution with the other.
At the time, such sentiments were still somewhat strange to family and friends in Tennessee and to the majority of Americans. Hitler's campaign had not directly affected most people and isolationists in Congress were struggling to keep it that way. Fort's progressive college experience, and increasing questions about the situation in Europe, probably furthered her vague sense of dissatisfaction when she returned to Nashville. As a member of the clubs and organizations appropriate for a young woman of means and social breeding, she felt something missing. She understood that idealism was part of the privileged existence that she led. Fort believed she had a responsibility to uphold the integrity, loyalty, and freedom her family life had taught her to value.
In 1940, flying lessons provided Fort with the focus she sought; she was immediately hooked. "None of us can put it into words why we fly," said Fort. "I can't say exactly why I fly but I know why as I've never known anything in my life." Her sister Louise once suggested that "flying apparently added a sense of wonder and joy to her life."
On her first flight, she had difficulties handling the control stick; within a month, she had soloed. The Fort family admired her achievements but could not quite understand the passion that had enveloped her. Rushing home to announce that she had soloed, she found her mother working among the roses. "How very nice, dear," Louise Clark Fort replied. "Now you won't have to do that again." Shortly after Fort's first lesson, Rufus Fort, Sr., died. For all his conventional outlook, he was a much-loved figure in the family, and the loss was a crushing blow.
In those days, aviation was still a novelty and very expensive. A private pilot's license cost between $500 and $750, and a pilot's average income was less than $2,000 a year. Since the first planes buzzed low over the landscape, however, America had a love affair with flying; Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were national heroes, and the barnstorming pilots of the Great Depression had been romanticized as the ultimate in escapist entertainment. But Earhart was not the only woman to tackle the rigors of guiding an airplane buffeted by the wind, maneuvering through clouds, rain and fog while relying on landmarks along the ground for direction. By 1928, there had been enough female pilots to form an international organization called the Ninety-Nines.
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.
During June 1940, Fort earned her private pilot's license. In the first week alone, she logged over 2,000 miles visiting friends around the southeast. Within a few months, she earned her commercial pilot's license, and by March 1941—just a year after she began flying—she earned an instructor's rating. This made her the first female flight instructor in Nashville and the only one in Tennessee. Fort continued her own flight training in larger aircraft. She was certain that aviation was a growing field, and she intended to be a part of it.
As the war in Europe escalated and American armed services began preparing for the possibility of engagement, more planes were manufactured and more pilots were needed. In early 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the Civilian Pilots Training Program (CPT), administered through colleges and universities, to financially assist those of college-age to learn flying. While the program did not exclude women, the ratio of acceptance was one woman for every ten men. When Fort was hired to teach in the CPT at Ft. Collins, Colorado, she planned to drive from Nashville with her dog, but her mother was scandalized by the idea of her daughter making such a long journey unchaperoned. So, despite the long and complicated solo flights Fort had undertaken, she gave in to her mother's insistence that she be accompanied by the family chauffeur.
One reason for taking the position in Colorado was to get altitude experience, "the hardest flying there is." In the Rocky Mountains, a plane took off at a height above what most small planes achieved taking off at sea level, and the winds could be a real challenge. "One learns plenty and fast," she wrote, noting that a year before she would have laughed had anyone suggested she would be willing to "get up at 4:30 am and work straight through until almost 8:00 pm daily for six months." In fact, she loved it.
In October 1941, Fort accepted a position in Hawaii, where she was one of two female flight instructors. The beauty of the islands impressed her but not the boom-town atmosphere and press of people from the defense industry and military bases. She wrote her brother that she missed the seasonal changes of home and the ability to get away to someplace different. Still, she continued, it was the best job she could have "unless the national emergency creates a still better one."
On December 7, a beautiful Sunday morning, Fort and a student pilot were flying above the island, preparing to make a landing, when she realized she was on a collision course with a military plane. Grabbing the controls, she pulled up, and the passage of the military aircraft caused a violent shaking in the windows of her airplane. Fort looked for the aircraft's identification to report the incident and was astonished to see orange circles, the Japanese emblem of the Rising Sun. She wrote:
I looked quickly at Pearl Harbor and my spine tingled when I saw billowing black smoke. Then I looked way up and saw the formations of silver bombers riding in. Something detached itself from an airplane and came glistening down. My eyes followed it down, down and even with knowledge pounding in my mind, my heart turned convulsively when the bomb exploded in the middle of the harbor.
Having witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she landed the plane and ran to safety, as "a shadow passed over" her and "simultaneously bullets spattered all around." Three months later, Fort returned to Nashville a celebrity and was asked to recount her experience over and over to newspapers, clubs, and on the radio. She made a short film to sell war bonds and became a speaker at war-bond rallies. The periodical Calling All Girls requested permission to base a comic strip on the story of her life, and she was offered a contract for lectures and radio appearances by the company that had managed Earhart and others. Fort, however, had other plans.
While waiting to return from Hawaii, she had missed a telegram from Jacqueline Cochran , a well-known pilot who was forming a group to fly with the Royal Air Force Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain. In Nashville, Fort returned to instructing, waiting for another such opportunity. She would be in Binghamton, New York, enrolled for a three-month, instrument-training course, when she would finally receive the telegram for which she'd been hoping.
Meanwhile, a struggle was under way involving Cochran and another prominent pilot, Nancy Harkness Love , who were working from different directions to persuade the U.S.
Army Air Force that women pilots were an answer to the drastic shortage of pilots needed to ferry newly manufactured planes to destinations around the country. Military leaders resisted, because many were not convinced that women had the strength to fly military craft, and many were simply uncomfortable with women in military work. Congress also resisted; on the floor of the House of Representatives there was an impassioned plea in 1941: "If we take women into the Armed Service, who then will do the cooking, the washing, the mending, the humble homey tasks to which every woman has devoted herself? … Think of the humiliation! What has become of the manhood of America!" But something had to be done soon. Men were being drafted into the infantry and joining other services that would engage in direct combat, leaving fewer and fewer to fly or be trained as pilots.
Cochran's small group of women flyers joined the Royal Air Transport Auxiliary, setting an example that was hard for the American armed forces to ignore. Cochran continued to push for a group in the States, using her personal influence with the president and Eleanor Roosevelt . In fact, Eleanor used her weekly radio address to support the use of women pilots in the war effort. Meanwhile, Love and her husband, who was in the Army Air Forces' Air Transport Command (ATC), began to lobby harder for the use of women to take some pressure off the ATC. Eventually, the competition and resulting bitterness between Cochran and Love did serious injury to their mutual cause, but without their efforts the American military might never have accepted the active support of American women pilots during World War II.
By 1942, the need for ferry pilots was so drastic that the army brass capitulated to Love's lobbying and authorized the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), with Nancy Love as their non-military commander. In September 1942, Love sent out a telegram to the most qualified women pilots in the country, inviting them to report within 24 hours to New Castle Army Air Base near Wilmington, Delaware, at their own expense. Fort received her telegram on September 6 and left Binghamton immediately, wiring her mother, "The heavens have opened up and rained blessings on me. The army has decided to let women ferry ships and I'm going to be one of them." A few days later, she became the second woman to be accepted into the WAFS.
Quarters for the women were not finished when the first recruits arrived. Initially, the candidates had to pay not only for their transportation to Wilmington but for their hotel, meals and transportation to and from the base for testing and early training, all without a salary. Even when they moved in, they had to pay for the facilities, meals and flying gear checked out to them. The salary for women was $250 per month plus a $6 per diem, significantly less than civilian men received for the same jobs. Love warned her squadron that they must adhere to the strictest codes of conduct at all times lest there be any appearance of fraternizing with the enlisted men or of actions that cast doubt on their integrity. Such behavior would result in instant dismissal from the WAFS; similar behavior in a man would call for simple army discipline.
The WAFS attracted great public attention, receiving coverage from newsreel film and magazine photographers. Not all the attention from men at New Castle could be labeled friendly. The WAFS were resented by some who believed the women were getting better treatment and who believed women should not be doing "a man's job." Other men simply thought of the WAFS as whistlebait. Love watched the situation with an eagle eye, seeing the dangers to her program if the group should get a "loose" reputation.
Fort's marching partner, Adela R. Scharr , wrote in her memoirs that Fort was simply pleased to be in the company of other distinguished female pilots. Fort had a look, she said, "of austere bookishness and her long handsome face did not correspond to the pretty-pretty face so beloved by moviegoers of the era." She had plenty of friends, but her purpose in the WAFS was to fly in support of her country.
On October 22, 1942, Fort was included in the first WAFS plane delivery from the Piper airplane factory at Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, to Long Island, New York. With difficult weather closing in, flight leader Betty Gillies wired the airfield of their arrival because there had been word that flights were being grounded due to aerial target practice near the area. The telegram was dangerously delayed. By the time it arrived, the women pilots had landed and were waiting for rides into the city, an incident that was only the first of many hazards and difficulties WAFS had to overcome.
Even so, the squadron was soon ferrying planes throughout the country. Cochran returned to the States and began to campaign for a place within the program, and a period of political maneuvering by Love, Cochran and their various supporters finally resulted in a compromise that allowed each woman her own sphere of influence. Love continued to command the WAFS, and Cochran established a school near Houston, Texas, to train pilots for the WAFS, an arrangement that was only partially satisfactory.
Occasionally, WAFS would ferry planes to locations near family and friends. Fort visited her brother Rufus, a recruiter for the Women's Army Corps in Atlanta. Sometimes she would arrange to meet her mother and sister at the Nashville airport, and at Christmas she managed a short visit home. Just after she returned to Delaware, she received word that a fire had damaged her beloved Fortland, destroying her childhood treasures and all her diaries, letters, and books. After learning of the loss, Fort appeared at the door of her room in the barracks "so stupefied it was difficult for her to speak," wrote Scharr. Fort compared this loss to the death of her father, for much of her life had been wrapped up in her home and her writings. The journals she had kept since her first flight were also gone. Many pilots are very superstitious and believe tragedies come in threes. Tragedy had now struck close to Fort twice, at Pearl Harbor and at home; many members of the WAFS began to wonder what would be next.
Change was about to take place for the "originals," as the first WAFS were called. They were split into small groups and reassigned, creating the nucleus of a squad that was to be developed with Cochran's graduates. Fort was assigned to Long Beach, California, where she arrived on February 18, 1943, after a one-day visit to Nashville en route. Ferrying planes to Dallas, she soon became so familiar with the route she felt it was a path cut into the sky. On March 21, she was on a routine trip with a squadron that included male pilots. One was a young hotshot, Frank W. Stamme, Jr., who teased, flirted with, and harassed Fort during the flight, fairly standard behavior when it came to the male pilot's attitude toward the WAFS. Just outside Abilene, Texas, he tried a particular stunt, perhaps not realizing that evasive maneuvers was not included in the women's training. As he dived toward her aircraft, a section of his plane hit her wing. Fort's plane went into a spin then plunged, diving nose into the ground to a depth of two feet. Apparently, Fort was either knocked unconscious or killed instantly for there was no evidence of an attempt by her to control the aircraft or to use the parachute. In the ensuing Army Air Force inquiry, no pilot error was found on her part. Stamme was found at fault, but the need for pilots was so great that he was not court-martialed and continued to fly.
Almost three years to the day after the burial of her father, Fort was laid to rest in Nashville, at age 24. The downtown church was packed for the funeral, and Nancy Love and Betty Gillies attended. Three weeks later, Gillies led a ferry mission from Hagerstown, Maryland, to Calgary, Canada—a 2,500-mile trip made in four days—an extraordinary feat for the WAFS Ferrying Division seen both as a morale booster for the women pilots and a tribute to Fort from her peers.
The "boys will be boys" attitude about dangerous flying habits continued for some time until a larger pool of pilots made individuals less important to the service. The Army Air Force commander, General H.H. Arnold, finally directed that disobeying safety regulations would mean dismissal or severe punishments, meaning the possible loss of military benefits—an ironic punishment, since women were not allowed military benefits. Not eligible to be taken under the Women's Army Corps as originally planned, the WAFS and the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) of Cochran's school watched efforts to militarize their own divisions undermined by the rivalry between their leaders. In 1943, the two groups were combined into the Women's Air Service Program (WASPs). The WASPs were deactivated in December 1944, without receiving military status or veterans benefits. In 1977, the efforts of former WASPs and their supporters finally rectified this injustice when Congressional legislation certified WASPs as military personnel eligible for veterans benefits. The U.S. Air Force gave the first official recognition in 1979, and in 1984 each woman pilot was awarded the Victory Medal while those with over one year of duty received the American Theater Medal.
The contribution of Cornelia Fort to her country has been recognized in several ways, including a private air park in Nashville that is named for her. During the wait to leave Hawaii after Pearl Harbor in 1941, she had written to her mother, reflecting on the possibility of her death while flying: "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 fading light. Think of me there and remember me, I hope as I shall you, with love."
Fort, Cornelia. "The Twilight's Last Gleaming," in Woman's Home Companion. July 1943.
Fort, Homer T., Jr., and Drucill Stovall Jones. A Family Called Fort: The Descendants of Elias Fort of Virginia. Midland, TX: West Texas Printing, 1970.
Scharr, Adela Riek. Sisters in the Sky. Vol. I, The WAFS, and Vol. II, The WASP. St. Louis, MO: Patrice Press, 1986, 1988.
Tanner, Doris Brinker. "Cornelia Fort: A WASP in World War II: Part I," in Tennessee Historical Quarterly. VOL. XL. Fall 1981; "Part II." Vol. XLI. Spring 1982.
Verges, Marianne. On Silver Wings, 1942–1944: The Women Air force Service Pilots of World War II. NY: Ballantine Books, 1991
Cochran, Jacqueline, with Floyd Odlum. The Stars at Noon. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1954.
Cole, Jean Hascall. Women Pilots of World War II. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1992.
Fisher, Marquita O. Jacqueline Cochran: First Lady of Flight. Illustrated by Victor Mays. Champaign, IL: Garrard, 1973.
Simbeck, Rob. Daughter of the Air: The Short Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort. Boston, MA: Atlantic Monthly, 1999.
"Women of Courage of World War II" (video with Student-Teacher Companion Guide). Ken Magid, Executive Producer. Lakewood, CO: KM Productions, 1992.
Documents about the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and Women's Air Service Program (WASP) are located in the Air Force Historical Research Center at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
Margaret L. Meggs , independent scholar on women's and disability issues, and a member of the Fort family