WASP Archives at TWU to Present …
The Cornelia Fort Collection
Cornelia Fort is one of the most recognized names among the 1,102 American women who flew for the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. They were known originally as the WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) and after August 5, 1943, as WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots.)
The Nashville Tennessee native – the third woman to join the WAFS in early September 1942 – first made headlines on December 7, 1941 … Pearl Harbor Day. She was the first person that fateful morning to “spot” and then encounter the approaching formation of Japanese warplanes.
A seasoned flight instructor at age 22, this young woman was aloft over Pearl Harbor – adjacent to the Hawaiian island of Oahu – that Sunday morning, giving a flying lesson to a young student pilot. In the distance she saw moving specks. “What are they? … A flock of birds?… Too big! … Airplanes?!!!”
She squinted through the windscreen of her Interstate Cadet trainer aircraft. The specks – yes, they were airplanes – and they were coming on fast!
“Let’s Get Outta Here!”
“What’s that, Miss Fort?”, asked her student Ernest Suomalo. He too had spotted them. As he spoke, one of the airplanes peeled off from the formation and headed straight for them.
“My airplane” Cornelia yelled, grabbing the controls away from her student. “Let’s get outta here!” She jammed the throttle wide open and pulled up and out of the path of the oncoming plane. It swept beneath them, rattling the celluloid windows. The aircraft bore the Rising Sun insignia of the Japanese Empire.
At that moment, WWII came to America.
Battleship Row Was THE Target!
The Hawaiian Islands, a United States protectorate, were under attack. Bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor, striking the ships docked below. (The main objective of the attack was to decimate US naval power in the Pacific by destroying the battleships moored along Battleship Row.) 
Bombs also fell on the adjacent city of Honolulu and elsewhere on the island of Oahu, including the Army’s Schofield Barracks. Planes parked adjacent to Army Air Forces’ hangars and runways were destroyed. Amidst that chaos, Cornelia landed safely, albeit in a hail of gunfire. A Japanese plane had zeroed in on them. She and Suomalo leaped from their aircraft and ran into the hangar for shelter.
Instant fame! And from there, Cornelia – now a heroine to her fellow Americans – went on to serve her country in WWII. In fall 1942, Cornelia and her fellow WAFS pilots were employed by the U.S. Army Air Forces, as Civil Service civilians. Their first job was to ferry (move) small training aircraft from the factories to the flight training bases. There, young men, America’s future fighter and bomber pilots, were gathering to learn to fly.
A Senseless Accident …
Tragically, Cornelia did not survive the war. In March 1943, while on a group ferrying mission from California over a lonely stretch of west Texas on their way to Dallas, a midair collision took her life. Her aircraft collided with one flown by a young male ferry pilot. She died. The young man survived. An investigation of the crash exonerated Cornelia of any blame.
Cornelia was, of course, one of so very very many this country lost in that long ago war. But America survived.
Fortunately, Cornelia’s story did not die with her. She had begun writing her “story of the WAFS,” only to have her manuscript destroyed when flames enveloped the Fort family home in December 1942. But Cornelia’s story – and those of her fellow WAFS, and the WASP – live on.
Two Biographies Tell Cornelia’s Story
I am the author of Cornelia Fort WAFS Pilot: Her Life for Her Country, published Spring 2023. This book is geared in particular for our young women readers of today. I and so many others want girls in their teens to have the opportunity to read and learn about these daring, incredible women pilots of WWII. Adults, too, may find it a good read.
My friend Rob Simbeck is the author of Daughter of the Air: The Brief Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort. (1999). Rob’s book is Cornelia’s full biography, much depth and detail.
Dedication of Cornelia’s Collection
Next week on November 9, the WASP Archives – located at the Blagg-Huey Library on the campus of Texas Woman’s University, Denton – will unveil and dedicate the Cornelia Fort Collection. Among the surviving artifacts are her papers, her writings, her letters, her original pilot’s license, and her final logbook that tells the story of Sunday December 7, 1941. All her other logbooks burned in the fire at Fortland.
A quick explanation for the uninitiated: Cornelia was a member of the original WAFS – the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, established by WAFS leader Nancy Harkness Love in September 1942. In August 1943, after Cornelia’s death, the WAFS – along with a second, larger group of young women who were, by then, learning to fly “the Army way” down in Texas – were incorporated into one organization, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). That is the name under which all 1,102 of the women pilots who served America in WWII are known today.
Only Nine of the WASP Are Still With Us
As I write this, only nine of these women are still with us. We who have known so many of them, miss these incredible women. They are a precious piece of America’s WWII legends.