Memories of Cornelia Fort

A Reminiscence by Peggy Dickinson Fleming.

In the short lifespan of Cornelia Fort, this remarkable Nashvillian accomplished great things. She was a premier aviatrix and was privileged to play an important role in history. The first female flight instructor in Nashville, she was sent to Hawaii to teach military personnel to fly. On December 7, 1941, Fort was flying with a student pilot when their aircraft nearly collided with an invading Japanese plane. From the air she saw the smoke from the Pearl Harbor bombing.

In the fall of 1942 Cornelia Fort was selected as one of the first members of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service (WAFs). She flew a number of missions in the service of her country before she was killed in March 1943 in a flying accident in Texas.

High school photograph of Cornelia Fort used with permission of the author.

I went to high school with Cornelia at Ward-Belmont in Nashville. She was an outstanding student, even then having the “look of eagles.” As I remember, Cornelia was responsible for the early downfall of my handwriting. Miss Major, our domineering Latin teacher, demanded rather long reports and test responses. Cornelia would sail through the reports and tests with her huge, looping handwriting, covering many pages with essays and answers. This greatly impressed Miss Major. I would be crawling along with my cramped version of handwriting, perhaps getting the job done, but not using up much test paper. Cornelia looked over my work with disgust and advised me to open up and stretch my efforts! This strategy produced the desired effect of creating large bunches of work, but, as you can imagine, it did nothing constructive for my handwriting. It is still rather illegible to this day.

Postcard photo of Ward-Belmont School from NHN collection.

Cornelia lived near Shelby Park in East Nashville. She was driven to and from school by a very amiable black employee by the name of Eperson. I loved being invited to accompany her, as we traveled in style in a large black town car.

Cornelia’s house was a lovely white antebellum home, set far from the road in a grove of walnut trees. Meals there were quite impressive, eaten under the watchful eye of Eperson, who saw to it that the young Forts minded their manners. You can imagine that I ate Very Carefully.

Cornelia had three older brothers who completely awed me. They were Rufus Fort Jr., Dudley, and Garth. Rufus and Dudley became well-known Nashville businessmen, while Garth followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming an MD. Garth married one of our neighbors here in Columbia, a woman with whom my husband Swope had grown up. Of course, this was many years after Cornelia’s tragic death.

I did not see Cornelia, or “Corns,” as I was wont to call her, after our graduation from high school; however, I have always valued the memories of our friendship.