Monday, February 10, 2020

Stories from the Sixteenth State: Cornelia Fort

By Zachary Keith and Casey Gymrek

The first episode of the Tennessee State Library and Archives’ new podcast, Stories from the Sixteenth State, shares the story of Nashville aviator, Cornelia Fort. In this episode, we hear from staff members, Zachary Keith and Casey Gymrek, who recount Fort’s remarkable life.

Cornelia Clark Fort was born on February 5, 1919, to Dr. Rufus Elijah Fort and Louise Clark Fort in Nashville, Tennessee. She attended Ross Elementary and Ward-Belmont in Nashville, before enrolling at Ogontz Junior College (the same school that Amelia Earhart attended) and finally graduated with a two-year degree from Sarah Lawrence.

Photograph of Cornelia Fort, from The Aviation History of Tennessee, by Jim Fulbright.

During the winter of 1940, Cornelia rode on an airplane for the first time. Once the plane took flight, Cornelia’s life was never the same. She immediately wanted to take flying lessons and even waited for hours that day to do so. She soon obtained her pilot’s license. In the summer of 1940, she took Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper on an afternoon flight followed by a dinner date, which the Governor considered “only so-so”. The two repeated their date the following day, but, according to Cooper, Cornelia “was too sleepy to be good company.”

Gov. Prentice Cooper’s Diary for June 21, 1940, GP44: Governor Prentice Cooper Papers. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

On February 8, 1941, Cornelia received her commercial license and began instructing area students. Soon after, Cornelia began applying to flight schools, hoping to get a job as an instructor.

By 1941, the fighting overseas had intensified, and American involvement became more of a likelihood. Once Cornelia received her ground instructor’s certificate, the Andrew Flying Service in Honolulu, Hawaii, offered her an instructor’s position.

Cornelia Fort instructing local boy, Cornelia Fort Papers, Nashville Public Library.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Cornelia was in the air early, instructing local student, Ernest Suomala, when she noticed a military plane flying toward her. The plane passed so closely that it violently rattled the windows of their small training plane. Cornelia, annoyed by the disrespect, looked down and noticed with disbelief the emblem of the Rising Sun on the plane’s wings.

Machine gun fire burst around their plane while Cornelia and her student raced for the hangar. They barely made it inside before a new wave of Japanese Zeroes swept in. Cornelia was the first American pilot to encounter the Japanese squadrons at Pearl Harbor. She spent much of the next year recounting her story to promote war bonds.

Cornelia Fort’s War Department identification card, Cornelia Fort Papers, Nashville Public Library.

Cornelia Fort’s flight log, Cornelia Fort Papers, Nashville Public Library.

On September 6, 1942, Cornelia received a telegram recruiting pilots to ferry planes for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service (WAFS). She joined WAFS, first serving in Delaware. On February 14, 1943, Cornelia transferred to the 6th Ferrying Group in Long Beach, California. Here, she was able to fly much larger planes than before, ferrying aircraft, on their way to Europe, from Long Beach to Dallas or San Antonio every couple of days.

Telegram from Jackie Cochran asking Cornelia to join the WAFS, Cornelia Fort Papers, Nashville Public Library.

On Sunday, March 21, 1943, Cornelia and a few other pilots, all-male, left for Dallas. They decided to give formation flying a try even though it was forbidden. Near Merkel, Texas, another pilot flew too close and clipped her wing. Her plane rolled and nosedived. Cornelia Clark Fort became the first female pilot to die on active duty in United States history. She was laid to rest in Nashville’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery next to her father.

Telegram from Prentice Cooper to Cornelia’s mother with condolences upon her death, Cornelia Fort Papers, Nashville Public Library.

After Cornelia’s death, the WAFS reorganized into the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS). The WAFS and subsequent WASPS collectively flew over 60 million miles, delivering 12,652 aircraft of 72 different models. Cornelia clocked over 1,103 hours aloft in her brief career. She was the second woman to obtain her commercial pilot’s license in Tennessee and the first flight instructor. She was portrayed in the film Tora! Tora! Tora! by actor Jeff Donnell. Cornelia Fort Airpark, built on the former Fortland Farms in Nashville, was named in her honor but closed after sustaining irreparable damage in the 2010 flood.

Aerial photograph of Fortland, RG 82: Tennessee Department of Conservation Photograph Collection, 1937-1976. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Hear Cornelia Fort's story in Episode 01 on the Stories from the Sixteenth State podcast.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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