By Bill Beigel
In the course of researching the World War 2 military casualties buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Fort Worth, TX, I came across the name of Cornelia Clark Fort, who is buried in a cemetery by the same name in Nashville, TN.
Cornelia’s headstone reads, “Killed in service to her country.” It’s an interesting and meaningful inscription, since women were not allowed to enlist as flyers in the military. And although women were extremely influential in the war effort, and some even died in the line of duty, women civilian flyers like Cornelia weren’t allowed to be counted among the official military war dead. Thus, there is no official military file on her service.
Nonetheless, her story is well worth telling, and every student of WW2 should know about Cornelia.
Cornelia Clark Fort was a civilian flight instructor (also unusual for the time) working in Hawaii, and was in the air when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. She was one of the few Americans to witness the bombing from the air. With an advanced student at the controls (it was his last scheduled flight before he received his pilot’s license), the pair saw that a plane was on a collision course, flying straight toward them. At the last moment, Cornelia Fort pulled the controls of the plane from her student and narrowly avoided the collision. Only then did she see the rising sun insignia on the wing and realize that it was a Japanese war plane. The next thing she witnessed was bombers flying in, smoke billowing toward the sky, and the explosions in the harbor below her. As she landed her plane at John Rodgers civilian airport, she was pursued and strafed by a Japanese Zero. She and her student ran for cover and survived. The airport manager was killed; two other planes carrying students and her fellow instructors did not return that morning.
Far from being cowed after this experience, Cornelia quickly volunteered for service in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (precursor to WASP), becoming the WAFS second member, and their first fatality.
On March 21, 1943, she was ferrying a BT-13 (a two-engine bomber-trainer) from Midland, Texas, to Dallas when she collided in mid-air with another BT-13, piloted by Flight Officer Frank E. Stamme, Jr. Cornelia’s plane went out of control, and it hit the ground almost vertically. Stamme was able to land his crippled plane, but Cornelia, whose left wing was struck in the collision, was killed in the crash.
Cornelia Clark’s crash on March 21, 1943 was one of seven fatal crashes incurred by the Air Corps on this date.
American actress Jeff Donnell played Cornelia Fort in the popular 1970 film, Tora! Tora! Tora!, billed at the time as, “The most spectacular film ever made.” Photos of Cornelia Fort, some of her fellow WAFS, and a photo of her grave stone are included in the gallery for this post, with gratitude for her brave service and sacrifice.
Photo credit: Cornelia Clark Fort’s headstone photo by Kim Shockey