03/11/2013 09:27 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cornelia Fort Who?

It is in the light of the Pentagon's lift of the ban on women serving in combat that we acknowledge March 21st, 2013 as the seventieth anniversary of the death of Cornelia Fort, the first female pilot to die for the United States military. Besides experiencing the bombing of Pearl Harbor first hand and thwarting the discrimination against female pilots by being one of the first to join the United States' Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squad (WAFS), Cornelia Fort died for her beliefs and the country she loved.

Cornelia Clark Fort was born on February 5th, 1919. Daughter of Dr. Rufus Fort and Mrs. Louise Clark Fort, Cornelia was born into a large family in Nashville, Tennessee. With her father the founder of a colossal insurance company, Cornelia's life was planned out for her. The family chauffer, Epperson Bond, would drive her from Fortland Farms, the family's 356 acre estate, to Ward-Belmont, an exclusive private school for girls. She was expected to assimilate into high Southern society and become a debutant. Ms. Fort was part of the Junior League, the Girl's Cotillion Club, and the Query Club (the women's literary club of Nashville). Flying a plane was nowhere in her mind at the time she spent in Nashville. In fact, her father had made her brothers swear that they would never fly an airplane.

Cornelia was sent to Ogontz School for Young Ladies in 1936, the same school that Amelia Earhart attended. Cornelia disliked the "gray walls and oppressive atmosphere" and would often state, "Amelia probably took up flying as a means of escaping the clutch of these gray walls." Cornelia began to ask her parents if she could transfer.

"Cornelia wanted desperately to go to Sarah Lawrence College. Its teachers were world-class. It was also, Cornelia knew, a school that valued the individuality of each student, allowing her, in essence, the freedom to design her own curriculum," writes Rob Simbeck, author of Daughter of the Air, a biography on Ms. Fort. However, her father was against the idea. He did not think that Sarah Lawrence, "a liberal northern school" was "proper for a southern girl." In the end, Cornelia and her mother petitioned Dr. Fort until he finally gave in.

The young southern girl quickly found her place in Sarah Lawrence's community. She "had a fondness of music nurtured by William Schuman" and became highly involved with the student body. Ms. Fort joined the yearbook staff, music club, studied literature and writing, and wrote for Sarah Lawrence's newspaper, The Campus. She even became the Chief Editorial Editor.

In 1939, Cornelia Fort received her two-year college diploma from Sarah Lawrence. After her father died, Cornelia took up a flying lesson for fun. "How dare you fly. Father forbade us from flying," remarked Dudley, Cornelia's brother. "Daddy gave that oath to the boys, not to me," Cornelia answered with a smile.

Ms. Fort took up flying because she "thought it'd be a good thing." She quickly fell in love with the sky and went on to get numerous licenses including her instructor license, private license, transport license, seaplane license, and commercial license. She became the first female flying instructor in all of Tennessee. When asked why she flies, Cornelia answered, "It gets under your skin, deep down inside." On December 7, 1941, Ms. Fort was giving a flying instruction in Hawaii when a Japanese plane almost crashed into her. "I saw a plane coming closer. It was in violation of the air traffic rules. I waited for it to give way for me, and then when it didn't, I jerked the stick out of the student's hand and pulled the plane up. Just in time, I spotted the insignia on the Japanese plane: a red sun on the fuselage. I could hardly believe my eyes. Then I saw smoke over Pearl Harbor and realized we had been attacked." Cornelia began to take the plane down while her student kept asking when he would get to fly solo. "Not today, brother, not today!" she answered. When she landed, there were explosions and gunfire. "My student let out one gasp and disappeared. He never did pay me for that half hour of instruction," she pointed out.
In 1942, Cornelia Fort was the second woman to sign up for the newly created Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squad (or WAFS for short), a civilian organization of women pilots who transported supplies for the U.S. military. "I knew I was going to join the WAFS 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," stated Ms. Fort. "I felt I could be doing something more constructive for my country than knitting socks. Better to go to war than lose the things that make life worth living."

The WAFS, headed by Mrs. Nancy Harkness Love, made history by proving that women could fly airplanes for the war effort. Before the WAFS, many did not believe that women could be trusted to fly military planes. "Because there were and are so many disbelievers in women pilots, especially in their place in the army, officials want the best possible qualifications to go with the first experimental group. We had to deliver the goods or else. Or else there wouldn't ever be another chance for women pilots in any part of the service," said Ms. Fort. Some of the men were "extremely bitter" and "went to great lengths to discredit them whenever possible." One man even tried to "play games in the sky" with a female pilot while she was giving him a flying lesson. Even though the brave women in the WAFS were regarded as "different" by their friends and family, they fought against the discrimination. "The only way to show the disbelievers, the snickering hanger pilots, is to show them," laughed Cornelia.

The WAFS were a huge part of Cornelia's life. "We felt a part of something larger," she would often say. "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." Even though the life of a woman pilot was not luxurious, Ms. Fort continued. "It keeps you broke, but it keeps you happy," she said. The WAFS lived a barrack lifestyle and Cornelia recounted, "all of us in the WAFS still think it is the most wonderful thing in the world even after a month of barrack life, slightly less house-like version of dormitory life at Sarah Lawrence College."

In 1943, at age 24, Cornelia Fort died. She was flying across the country with a group of other pilots. Adela Scharr, Cornelia's "marching buddy" recounted what she believed happened, "This young man had sort of cornered Cornelia and was playing around like he was dog-fighting with her. The problem was that these fellows were young showoffs." Lt. Stamme, a recent pilot with under 300 hours of flight was flying close to Cornelia, who held over 1,100 hours of flying. Fort's plane and Stamme's plane collided. Stamme's landing gear hit Fort's plane and investigators said, "the impact of such a mid-air collision could have jammed or damaged the canopy, making it impossible to open and causing the pilot to lose consciousness." At twenty-four years old, Cornelia Fort became the first WAFS to die for her country, and may be the first female pilot to die on duty for the U.S. military.

"I am grateful that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country," wrote Ms. Fort before her tragic death. Fort's estate and money was given to Sarah Lawrence to create a scholarship for southern girls. Cornelia wrote in her will of "an appreciation of the deep and sincere intellectual experience I received while a student." Sadly, the scholarship soon dried up. An airpark in Nashville was named after Cornelia in 1946 and there is also a small, unofficial plaque for Cornelia at her crash site in Mulberry Canyon, Texas.

Why is Cornelia Fort virtually unknown? "It's not uncommon to find a woman who's remarkable and unappreciated. It's disrespectful we're not honoring her in some way," says Elizabeth Wilson class of '13 and co-chair of the Feminist Collective at Sarah Lawrence College. Women during that time were not appreciated or recognized. The WAFS did not get recognition or veteran benefits until 1979. "The efforts and sacrifices of a talented and courageous group of women have been recognized and the pilots accorded status as military veterans...and they continue to inspire Air force women who now follow in their footsteps," said Ms. Antonio Chayes, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.

An archivist from the U.S. Army Women's Museum stated that the museum's archives did not have any records of her. Because she was given the active duty status in 1979, the museum does not consider her as part of the military, but only "contracted." Many women have died in service for the United States, from women disguising as men that fought in the Revolutionary War to WWII's Women's Army Corps. With that said, there may have been a few female pilots flying planes in WWI as part of the Women's Army Corps. "The WAFS were nothing more than a group of women with extensive flying experience, who were recruited, to ferrying aircraft to various bases and locations within the United States and in some cases abroad," said the Air Force Historical Studies Office. Not only did Cornelia face discrimination for being a female pilot, but she was only the first of thirty eight brave women to lose her life while serving under the WAFS or WASPS (Women's Airforce Service Pilots, a group that succeeded the WAFS).

Cornelia was a woman before her time, rebelling against the norms society placed on her. "Many of our Nashville friends were meadowmousy and we had lived in a very traditional style," said Cornelia's sister, Louise. "I think she was a great rebel of her time." Rob Simbeck calls her a "hero, someone who lived for something bigger than she was, someone who gave of herself in a cause she believed in and a country she loved."

Cornelia believed in freedom and readily flew for her country despite the discrimination and risks. She was expected to take the life of a Southern debutant but wanted adventure. In the end, let us remember Cornelia Fort in the words she wrote to her mother before her death: "I was happiest in the sky...Think of me there and remember me."