Cornelia was teaching flying in Pearl Harbor on the morning of the attack, Dec. 7, 1941. She was flying an Interstate Cadet. Her experiences were published in Woman's Home Companion, June, 1943. The editor wrote this about her story:
Here is one of the most remarkable articles ever published- a personal story by the first woman pilot to die on war duty in American history. Shortly after she sent it to us, Miss Fort, twenty-four, of Nashville, Tennessee, was killed when the bomber she was piloting crashed in Texas. But her words here will live - as a moving account of why one woman joined the WAFS and as a testament to all American women who are helping keep America free.
Bernice was later checked out in a P-51. On her first ferry mission she left Long Beach on the usual heading and after getting the gear up, the flaps up and the plane trimmed out she got out the maps to see where she was. She was already on the third sectional chart before she located her position. Cruising at 350 knots was totally new to her. Barbara Towne had been a model and was the mother of two boys. She was 24 years old when this picture was taken. I tried calling her and wrote several times but she felt that she had nothing to add to our recollections. I can only imagine that she had no personal knowledge of the crash. These were all courageous women who were, for all practical purposes, test pilots for the planes they flew.
After 20 years of study and research I believe that the WASPS were disbanded because male pilots wanted to stay out of combat in the trenches by being pilots. Eliminating the women would open an opportunity for men to fly. Many rich families had young men who were pilots and they had the most congressional pull at the time. A few of the WAFS that I talked to thought that Jacqueline Cochran's abrasive personality angered some congressmen and made them reluctant to support her demands.
If you have any pictures we might use, please e.mail them to me.
Here is a picture of a BT-13 like the one aunt Cornelia died in.
See an expanded grave marker.
The ferry command patch
The transport command patch They were interchanged and the WAFS that I knew had the grey patches.
Here is a presentation that a Chattanooga, TN school girl did on Cornelia. It is so inspiring that I have included it here. While working on the presentation she went to the Collagedale airport and got a ride in an AT-6.
My name is Cornelia Fort. I was born in Nashville in 1919, where I grew up with my three older brothers. When I was five, my father, who believed that flying was dangerous, made the boys swear an oath on the Holy Bible never to fly. When I was 21, after two years of college, I began taking flying lessons. The family wasn’t thrilled, but than again they hadn’t asked me to swear an oath. I became the second woman in Tennessee to receive my commercial license and the first to receive my instructors rating. 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 women could fly airplanes. But I never knew it so surely as I did in Honolulu on December 7, 1941. At dawn that morning I drove to the civilian airport next to Pearl Harbor, where I was a flight instructor. Shortly after six-thirty I began landing and take off practice with my regular student. Coming in jut before the last landing, I looked around and saw a military plane coming directly toward me. He passed so close under us that our windows rattled violently and I looked down to see what kind of plane it was.
The painted red balls on the tops of the wings shone brightly in the sun. I looked again with complete and utter disbelief. Honolulu was familiar with the emblem of the Rising Sun.
I looked quickly at Pearl Harbor and my spine tingled when I saw billowing black smoke. Still I thought hollowly it might be some kind of coincidence or maneuvers, it might be, it must be. For surely...
I sat about landing as quickly as I could. Suddenly that little wedge of sky above Pearl Harbor was the busiest fullest piece of sky I ever saw.
The rest of December has been described my too many and in too much detail for me to reiterate. I remained on the island for three months, when I returned by convoy to the United States. None of the pilots wanted to leave but there was no civilian flying in the islands after the attack. Before I left, I wrote a letter to my mother:
January 28, 1942
In writing this letter, which if delivered will be my last, I’m filled neither with a sense of morbidity nor a prescience of disaster. But the ocean voyage I will be making shortly has elements of danger and if I lose my life before seeing you again, dearest, I wanted to say aloha and send you my love forever and forever.
I want you to know that except for not seeing you in the last weeks, my life has been exceedingly happy. Thanks to environment, both physical and spiritual that you and Dad gave me, my life has been rich and full of meaning.
I’ve loved the green pastures and the cities, the sunshine on the plains and the rain in the mountains. Springtime in New York and fog in San Francisco.
I’ve loved the multitudinous friends in many places and their many kindnesses to me. I’ve loved the steak and red wine and dancing in smoky nightclubs, self-important headwaiters who bring reams of French bread and wine sauces in New Orleans.
I loved my blue jeans and the great dignity of life on the ranches. I loved fox-hunting even with its snobbishness, I loved the deep pervading tiredness after six hours of timber-topping.
I dearly loved the airports, little and big. I loved the sky and the planes and yet, best of all, I loved flying. For it too was a deeply personal possession of the soul.
I loved it best perhaps because it taught me utter self-sufficiency, the ability to remove oneself beyond the keep of anyone at all - and in doing so it taught me what was of value and what was not.
It taught me a way of life - in the spiritual sense. It taught me to cherish dignity and integrity and to understand the importance of love and laughter.
For I have loved many people and many places and many things and best of all I have loved life, and especially American life - And if I can say one thing in truth, it is that to my friends and convictions I have brought all the loyalty and integrity of which I am capable.
If I die violently, who can say it was “before my time”? I should have dearly loved to have had a husband and children. But if that was not to be, I want no one to grieve for me.
I was happiest in the sky - at dawn when the quietness of the air was like 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, I hope as I shall you.
When I returned to the U.S., the only way I could fly at all was to instruct Civilian Pilot Training programs. Weeks passed. Then, out of the blue, came a telegram announcing the organization of the WAFS and the order to report within twenty-four hours if interested. I left at once.
Because there were and are so many disbelievers in women pilots, especially in their place in the army, officials wanted the best possible qualifications to go with the first experimental group. We had to deliver the goods or else. Or else there wouldn’t be another chance for women pilots in any part of the service.
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.
For all the girls in the WAFS, I think the most concrete moment of happiness came at our first review. Suddenly and for the first time we felt part of something larger. Because of our uniforms which we has earned, we were marching with the men, marching with all of the freedom loving people in the world.
As long as our planes fly overhead the skies of America are free and that’s what all of us everywhere are fighting for. And that we, in a very small way, are being allowed to help keep that sky free is the most beautiful thing I have ever known.
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. That’s all the luck I ever hope to have.
The story of a fighter pilot who shot down four enemy planes in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941
In case you haven't heard, here are the links to the background information and the audio file on WASPs:
RAM FILES of the ATC
The Cornelia Letters..