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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Lauren Grizzard
It was a clear morning on December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The weather conditions were perfect for Tennessee native, Cornelia Fort, to take a student out for a flying lesson. Cornelia was the first female pilot in Nashville and had taken a job in Honolulu, Hawaii as a flight instructor earlier that year. When Cornelia first applied to be an instructor, they wrote back to “Mr. Fort” thinking she was a man. Because of the lack of trained pilots in World War II (WWII), they told Cornelia, “Mr. or Miss or Mrs. Fort. We do not care what you are if you can teach flying. Report at once.”
Cornelia Fort, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
With more hours in the air than most men, Cornelia wanted to serve her country, but wasn’t allowed to enlist in the military. She saw her job of training pilots before they were sent to war as one of the only ways she could help. As Cornelia and her student went up in the air that Sunday morning in 1941, they couldn’t have known that United States’ history would soon be forever changed.
Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Cornelia wrote that as her student was flying, a military plane was spotted in their airspace straight ahead and flying towards them. She thought the plane was off course and would turn out of their path, but when they kept flying straight-on, “…I jerked the controls away from my student and jammed the throttle wide open to pull above the oncoming plane… He passed so close under us that our windows rattled violently, and I looked down to see what kind of plane it was. The painted red [circles] on the tops of the wings shone brightly in the sun. I looked again with complete and utter unbelief.” Cornelia and her student were two of the first people to witness the Japanese planes flying to bomb the United States Navy base, Pearl Harbor.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor resulted in over 2,400 casualities and the United States officially entering WWII. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt described the event as, “December 7, 1941 – A date which will live in infamy.” The war had started in 1939 and continued until 1945. This meant the United States was involved for almost four full years. The need for soldiers meant women were granted permission to join in official military work that was non-combatant. Women like Cornelia Fort went through rigorous training and became part of the Army, Navy, and although they were not granted official military status, the Air Force as well.
Nashville Public Library.
Sometimes it’s easy for us to think that history doesn’t impact our lives. But remembering events like Pearl Harbor and trailblazers like Cornelia Fort help us learn from the past and appreciate the present. Women of WWII helped pave the way for women to now serve in every part of the military. The sacrifices of so many men and women ultimately helped end the war. Pearl Harbor happened over 75 years ago, but through the bravery of those there, and through us telling their stories, it will not be forgotten.
“I am grateful that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country.” – Cornelia Fort
Enlist – Join the armed services (military).
Casualties – someone who is killed or injured in a battle or attack.
Infamy – Known for being an evil act.
Non-combatant – Person that does not fight during a war.
Rigorous – Challenging and difficult.
Trailblazers – Innovator and trendsetter.
Fill in the blank: Cornelia Fort was the first female __________ in Nashville.
What date was the bombing of Pearl Harbor?
Why do you think women weren’t allowed to join the military?
How have jobs for women changed after WWII?
Think of a way you can honor the trailblazers of history like Cornelia Fort. Maybe you can draw a picture, write a song, or talk to your friends and family about people you think have had an important place in history and why.
To read about another woman serving in WWII, Doris Brinker Tanner, click the link below: https://tnmuseum.org/junior-curators/posts/the-wasp-that-doesnt-sting
Lauren Grizzard is the Scheduling Coordinator at the Tennessee State Museum.