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When Japanese aircraft began their assault (Nakajima B5N Kate bomber, lower right), Cornelia Fort was giving a flying lesson; she later documented the terrifying surprise in her logbook. (National Museum of the USAF; Texas Woman's University Libraries; Library of Congress; Photo Illustration by Theo)

A Pearl Harbor Mystery

How a 1940s Interstate Cadet trainer sent a famous airshow pilot on a journey to find a kindred spirit.

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.

Fort eventually escaped Hawaii. She was determined to get into the flying war effort on the mainland and show what was possible for women pilots, at a time when neither the military nor the general public took them seriously. She succeeded, but at great cost. In September 1942, she was one of the first 25 female pilots accepted into government service as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service (WAFS). It was the forerunner of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, which in August 1943 would absorb the WAFS. Fort didn’t live to see that day. She was killed in March 1943 while delivering a new BT-13 trainer to an Army base in Texas. She was 24, and the first woman pilot to die on war duty in American history.

Fort’s Pearl Harbor escape had been widely recounted by newspapers in 1942, broadcast by Fort herself on the family’s Nashville radio station, and reported in her own words posthumously in the June 1943 Woman’s Home Companion magazine. By the 1960s, Fort’s flying lesson was a standard anecdote in popular histories of Pearl Harbor, and it was recounted, loosely, in the 1970 movie Tora, Tora, Tora. In the film, Fort, who was young, dark-haired, and thin, was played by a matronly, middle-aged actress in blonde curls. More critically, Fort’s closed-cabin Interstate Cadet monoplane was played by an open-cockpit Stearman Kaydet biplane, a gaffe that still galls aviation historians and Cadet collectors.

Today, the job of keeping Fort’s story fresh falls to Dudley Fort Jr., a retired Tennessee surgeon, avid pilot, and Fort’s nephew, and his cousin Chloe Frierson Fort. Through them, Fort’s story (and her papers, memorabilia, and anecdotes) caught the attention of Rob Simbeck, a Nashville writer who in 1999 published a wonderfully researched biography, Daughter of the Air.

Dr. Fort has clear memories of his glamorous aunt. He was almost seven, he recalls, when in February 1943 she came through Atlanta on a ferry flight and stopped to see his father, Dudley Fort Sr., the youngest of Fort’s three older brothers. “My father brought her to the house,” Dr. Fort recalls. “He had promised that she would bring her parachute for us to see, but she had left it in the airplane. What a disappointment. She brought my brother and me a Dick Tracy cap pistol, which we were only allowed to use under supervision.”

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