From the Archives: Cornelia Fort, Eyewitness to Pearl Harbor

Cornelia FortIn 1941, Cornelia Fort was a certified civilian flight instructor who worked for the Andrews Flying Service in Honolulu, a Nashville debutante who had kicked her way into the male dominated world of general aviation. (1) She was only 22 and already an experienced pilot with hundreds of flight hours to her credit.

On December 7, 1941, Fort was in the air with a student pilot, a defense worker named Suomala who was practicing landings prior to taking his first solo flight. As was typical at the time, they had no radio, so the only way to avoid other aircraft coming and going at Honolulu’s John Rodgers Airport was to scan the sky around them

Prior to what was scheduled to be Suomala’s final landing before soloing, Fort scanned the sky. She saw a military plane heading in from the ocean. She was so accustomed to military traffic from the nearby military bases that she nodded to Suomala to turn into the first leg of his landing pattern. She looked again and saw another military aircraft headed right for them. She grabbed the controls away from her student, jammed the throttle open, and pulled above the oncoming plane. It passed under them, so close that their celluloid windows rattled.(2)

Fort glanced down to see what kind of plane it was. Instead of the insignia of the US Army Air Corps, painted red circles shone on the wings in the morning sun: the “rising sun” emblem of the Japanese. With a chill tingling down her spine, she looked west to Pearl Harbor, where she saw billowing black smoke and formations of silver bombers. Something detached itself from one of the planes and she watched as the bomb fell and exploded in the middle of the harbor.

She landed the plane at John Rodgers as quickly as she could, surrounded by machine gun fire. As they touched down, Suomola asked “When am I going to solo?” (Fort later said she wasn’t sure whether he didn’t understand what was happening or was trying to lighten the situation with humor.) A contemporary newspaper account reported her answer as “Not today, brother.” A few seconds later, the shadow of a plane passed overhead and bullets spattered around them. Pilot and student sprinted for the cover of the hanger.

Once inside, Fort tried to warn others that the Japanese were attacking. She was met with disbelief and laughter. The men she worked with tried to pass it off as some sort of maneuvers that she had misunderstood. Fort was “damn good and mad.”(3) She was about to tell them off when a mechanic from another hanger ran in and told them that strafing planes had just shot another pilot and his student as they ran for cover.

As scores of Zeros roared by, some no more than fifty feet off the ground, Fort and her companions took shelter in the hangar. When she examined her plane the next day, she found it riddled with bullets.

Newspapers soon picked up the story of Fort’s encounter with the Japanese–it would have been a good story no matter who was involved. A pretty young female aviator gave it an additional human interest element. For a time, she was part of the speaking tour that sold war bonds. But she was determined to use her flying skills for the war effort. Lamenting the fact that she she couldn’t be a fighter pilot and face the Japanese in the air again, she was the second woman to volunteer for the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS).

For several months she delivered small training planes(4) up and down the east coast. In February, 1943, Fort and several other WAFS were assigned to Long Beach California to deliver the much larger BT-13s. They were thrilled with the “promotion” to larger planes, but some of them remained frustrated by the fact that they were not allowed to become fighter pilots. Determined to acquire some of the skills needed, Fort and a few of her companions began to experiment with formation flying, an activity that was forbidden during delivery flights. On March 21, 1943, while participating in a forbidden stint of formation flying on a delivery, Fort’s plane was destroyed in a mid-air collision, making her the first WAFS pilot to die while on duty.

What a waste.

(1) Her father made her brothers promise never to fly. He never thought to ask for the promise from his daughter. Her brothers were royally pissed off when they found out she had been taking flying lessons in secret.

(2) Fort’s written account of the incident claims that at this point she felt “a distinct feeling of annoyance that the Army plane had disrupted our traffic pattern and violated our safety zone.” My guess is that she swore like a fighter pilot–or at least gave vent to a string of the “dangs” and “sssssss–sugars” that passed for profanity among women of the Middle South at the time.

(3) And can you blame her?

(4) PT-19s, for the aviation fans among the Marginalia

A Year in Review: 1519


Back in May, announcements of museum exhibitions celebrating the work of Leonardo da Vinci began to appear in the various places where I hang out online, triggered by the 500th anniversary of his death.(1) They made me wonder what else of note happened in 1519.(2)

It turned out that quite a lot was going on. (Go figure.) Here are some of the high and low points, in no particular order:

The Protestant Reformation was beginning to bubble. Martin Luther publicly questioned the doctrine of papal infallibility and was summoned to Rome on charges of heresy. In Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli was preaching his own brand of church reform, which would develop after his death into the various Reformed and Calvinist versions of Protestantism.

Hernán Cortés landed at Veracruz with a force of 550 men, sixteen horses, several mastiffs, and ten brass cannon. He assembled a coalition of native peoples who had previously been conquered by the Aztecs and marched on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Because Cortes and the Spanish appeared to fulfill an Aztec legend about the return of the god Quetzalcoátl, the Aztec ruler Montezuma II met the Spanish with a warm welcome rather than armed resistance. In fact, he invited Cortés into the royal palace. Not a good decision. Cortés took Montezuma captive and used him as a hostage to subdue the Aztec people. That peaceful surrender wasn’t the end of the story. A year later, in Cortes’ absence, the Aztecs revolted. Montezuma was killed in the revolt. Cortes and his allies looted their way through the empire, succeeding in part because an epidemic of smallpox devastated the native population.

And speaking of forgotten women in history, as we so often do here in the Margins, there was another important character in this story who didn’t show up in the versions I learned in school: a multilingual Amerindian woman variously known as La Malinche, Doña Marina and Malintzin.(3) Her story has been pieced together over the years from conflicting accounts, with lots of holes in them. (Even the names we know her by date from her relationship with the Spanish.) She was the daughter of an Aztec (or possibly Mayan) chieftain, whose mother sold her to slavers after her father’s death.  The slavers sold her to another chieftain, who presented her, along with a group of nineteen other young women, to Cortés in 1519. Most accounts of her story claim she became Cortés mistress, though I’m not sure that’s the correct term for an enslaved woman who is used sexually by her owner. Beyond their sexual relationship, Malintzin quickly became indispensable to Cortés as a linguistic and cultural translator, and possibly as a military and diplomatic strategist. She is often portrayed as a traitor, or at best a victim. (4) But at least one scholar, Cordelia Candelaria, suggests that Malintzin, too, may have been bedazzled by the possibility that Cortés was the god Quetzalcoátl. From slave girl to right hand of the god is a pretty big step.

In addition to smallpox, Cortés reintroduced horses to the Americas. Over time, horses would transform Native American cultures in the Western plains and Latin America. Going the other direction, he brought cacao beans to the Spanish royal court, along with instructions for turning them into a tasty beverage. Hot chocolate anyone?

The Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan sailed with five Spanish ships in search of a western route to the Spice Islands, the first step in circumnavigating the globe.

Isabella JagiellonFinally, just to balance out the fact that this post started with the anniversary of a death, Isabella Jagiellion, the first ruler to issue an edict declaring universal religious toleration, was born on January 18, 1519.

(1) Lucrezia Borgia also died in 1519, but no one seemed inclined to celebrate that anniversary. Though I would bet that 500 years ago a person or two may have lifted a glass in honor of the occasion. Assuming that the popular image of Lucretia bears any resemblance to reality. Which it may not because that’s the way it goes with women in history. (A quick poke around on line reveals titles such as “Lucretia Borgia: Predator Or Pawn?”—not a great pair of choices.)

(2) I am not the sort of historian who holds lots of random dates in my head.

(3) Or at least forgotten in the United States. She is definitely remembered in Mexico, where her name is an insult.

(4) Also not a great pair of choices.

Pausing for a Moment of Gratitude

Thanksgiving is breathing down our necks here in the United States.

It’s been quite a year and I have a lot to be thankful for, professionally and personally.  One of the things I’m thankful for are those of you who read History in the Margins, send me comments and ideas, ask hard questions, point out the typos, and cheer me on.  Without you, I’d be talking to myself.

I’m going to close down for the rest of the week to make lists, peel potatoes, make a toast or two, spend some time with my family, and count my blessings.  I’ll be back on Tuesday (knock wood) with more stories from history.