A Pearl Harbor Mystery
How a 1940s Interstate Cadet trainer sent a famous airshow pilot on a journey to find a kindred spirit.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2012
National Museum of the USAF; Texas Woman's University Libraries; Library of Congress; Photo Illustration by Theo
(Page 2 of 6)
For 28 years, Pietsch had flown for the airlines (he retired from Northwest in 2007). On his 24-hour airline layovers in Honolulu, he had become fascinated by Pearl Harbor history, especially after taking a tour of the USS Arizona Memorial led by Pearl Harbor survivor Richard Fiske. In 1991, Pietsch was flying for what was still Northwest Airlines as a DC-10 copilot on the run between Fukuoka, Japan, and Honolulu, Hawaii. On December 5, he had been westbound, Hawaii to Japan. Word came to the cockpit that one of the passengers was Zenji Abe, an elderly businessman who had been a Japanese dive-bomber pilot in the second-wave attack on Pearl. A deeply patriotic man, Pietsch went back on his break just to stare at this ancient enemy, only to be charmed by Abe, who had become a promoter of peace. “At first I wouldn’t even sit down with him,” Pietsch remembers. “I just perched on the armrest, but then we got talking and it was all right.”
Two days later, Pietsch was on an early morning approach to Honolulu International, 50 years almost to the minute from the first attack. “I think it was 8:14 in the morning,” he recalls. “We were coming Fukuoka to Hawaii on basically the same route as they [the Imperial Navy] took, only they came north of the mountain and we were coming south of it. The sun was shining through cloud and you could see the rising sun. It was unbelievable. We went right by the Arizona Memorial and I just felt a chill.”
After landing, Pietsch checked into his layover hotel and was getting ready to go to sleep when the room was rocked by the roar of military aircraft. He threw open the curtain to see a B-52 tear by at eye level, making a low tribute pass over the Punchbowl military cemetery. Pietsch switched on the TV news and saw footage of Zenji Abe hugging Richard Fiske at an earlier ceremony.
There was a message here about Pearl Harbor, Pietsch decided.
The Cadet the Ohio collector was offering was said to be flying over Hawaii at the time of the Japanese attacks. Pietsch was stunned: This might be the most famous Interstate Cadet ever made.
On December 7, 1941, an instructor and her student had taken a Cadet up over Hawaii for a routine lesson. The instructor was Cornelia Fort, 23, the eldest daughter in a wealthy Nashville family. Fort had shaken off her fate as a pillar of high society to become a pilot, and was teaching for a flight school based at Honolulu’s civilian John Rodgers Airport. Fort and her early-bird student, a military worker remembered today only by his last name—Suomala—were practicing touch-and-gos. Less than three miles to the northwest, Pearl Harbor and the U.S. fleet were visible, drowsing in the Sunday morning sunlight. Just before 8 a.m., Fort caught the flash of an airplane coming in from the sea. She was annoyed, then alarmed. The silver airplane, well outside the usual military zone, was heading low and straight for the Cadet.
Fort grabbed the stick from her student, slammed the throttle forward, and climbed desperately. The military intruder passed so close below them that its engine violently rattled the Cadet’s windows. That’s when Fort recognized the rising-sun insignia on its wings. Japanese bombers were pouring in from the northwest, and smoke was rising from Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese bombers were so intent on spotting their targets, most probably never saw the Cadet. One of the passing attackers did take a shot at it, but Fort quickly put the Cadet down at John Rodgers Airport. She and her student jumped out and ran for their lives as a Japanese fighter swooped through on a strafing run that shredded another trainer and killed the instructor.