A Pearl Harbor Mystery

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

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)
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Pietsch got the government records for N37345. There is no evidence that connects this Cadet with Hawaii, he says. Interstate had manufactured it and certified it airworthy on October 14, 1941, and sold it three days later to Judd Goodrich of North Hollywood, California, who was officially registered as the new owner on December 27, 1941. If Fort had flown it on December 7, someone would have had to crate it up and ship it back to Los Angeles immediately afterward. But in the days after the Pearl Harbor attack, getting out of Hawaii, for civilians and civilian airplanes, was next to impossible. Fort herself, even with family connections, couldn’t get back for nearly three months. The only other explanation is that Goodrich bought the Cadet at the end of 1941 but didn’t take possession of it until later.

The next reference in government records is a modification approval Goodrich got for installing two new antennas on September 19, 1942, in Tucson, Arizona. Two months later, on November 21, Goodrich sold N37345 to PT Air Service of Hayes, Kansas, where it began a short, unlucky life. From the repair certifications, Pietsch figures N37345 crashed in 1944 and again in 1955. Its registration lapsed soon after.

Why does it matter if this Interstate Cadet is the one that Fort flew over Pearl Harbor 70 years ago, and if the other was a sister ship that survived on the ground? Time thins out human witnesses, and to fully appreciate great events, we need historic objects. The horse that General Phil Sheridan rode to the 1864 Battle of Winchester stands stuffed in the Smithsonian; to look upon that genuine warhorse is to catch a whiff of Civil War gunsmoke. Anything else would be just a stuffed horse.

In this case, though, perhaps the artifact is less important, and the mystery can go unsolved. Fort was a talented writer who captured both the prosaic and poetic sides of flying in the early 1940s. Six weeks after surviving the horrors of Pearl Harbor, she wrote a strange, eerily past-tense letter home to her mother: “I dearly loved the airports, little and big. I loved the sky and the airplanes, and yet, best of all I loved the flying.” At the end, she wrote, “I was happiest in the sky ⎯at dawn when the quietness of the air was like a caress, when the noon sun beat down, and at dusk when the sky was drenched with the fading light.” Fort’s storytelling is powerful enough to carry us back to a different flying world before December 7, 1941, and to the new and crueler world just after.

John Fleischman is a frequent contributor.


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