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At the twilight's last gleaming
At the Twilight's Last Gleaming
by Cornelia Fort
I knew I was going to join the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron before the
organization was a reality, before it had a name, before it was anything but a
radical idea in the minds of a few men who believed that women could fly
airplanes. But I never knew it so surely as I did in Honolulu on December 7,
At dawn that morning I drove from Waikiki to the John Rodgers civilian airport
right next to Pearl Harbor where I was a [ill.] pilot instructor. Shortly
after six-thirty I began landing and take-off practice with my regular student.
Coming in just before the last landing, I looked casually around and saw a
military plane coming directly toward me. 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 celluloid windows rattled violently and I
looked down to see what kind of plane it was.
The painted red balls on the tops of the wings shone brightly in the sun. I
looked again with complete and utter disbelief. Honolulu was familiar with the
emblem of the Rising Sun on passenger ships but not on airplanes.
I looked quickly at Pearl Harbor and my spine tingled when I saw billowing
black smoke. Still I thought hollowly it might be some kind of coincidence or
maneuvers, it might be, it must be. For surely, dear God...
Then I looked way up and saw the formations of silver bombers riding in.
Something detached itself from an airplane and came glistening down. My eyes
followed it down, down and even with knowledge pounding in my mind, my heart
turned convulsively when the bomb exploded in the middles of the harbor. I
knew the air was not the place for my little baby airplane and I set about
landing as quickly as ever I could. A few seconds later a shadow passed over
me and simultaneously bullets spattered all around me.
Suddenly that little wedge of sky above Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor was the
busiest fullest pieces of sky I ever saw.
We counted anxiously as our little civilian planes came flying home to roost.
Two never came back. They were washed ashore weeks later on the windward side
of the island, bullet-riddled. Not a pretty way for the brave little yellow
Cubs and their pilots to go down to death.
The rest of December seventh has been described by too many in too much detail
for me to reiterate. I remained on the island until three months later when I
returned by convoy to the United States. None of the pilots wanted to leave
but there was no civilian flying in the islands after the attack. And each of
us had some indication [ill.] brought murder and destruction to our islands.
When I returned, the only way I could fly at all was to instruct Civilian Pilot
Training programs. Weeks passed. Then, out of the blue, came a telegram from
the War Department announcing the organization of the WAFS (Women's Auxiliary
Ferrying Squadron) and the order to report within twenty-four hours if
interested. I left at once.
Mrs. Nancy Love was appointed Senior Squadron Leader of the WAFS by the
Secretary of War. No better choice could have been made. First and most
important she is a good pilot, has tremendous enthusiasm and belief in women
pilots and did a wonderful job in helping us to be accepted on an equal status
Because there were and are so many disbelievers in women pilots, especially in
their place in the army, officials wanted the best possible qualifications to
go with the first experimental group. All of us realized what a spot we were
on. We had to deliver the goods or else. Or else there wouldn't ever be
another chance for women pilots in any part of the service.
We have no hopes of replacing men pilots. But we can each release a man to
combat, to faster ships, to overseas work. Delivering a trainer to Texas may
be as important as delivering a bomber to Africa if you take the long view. We
are beginning to prove that women can be trusted to deliver airplanes safely
and in the doing serve the country which is our country too.
I have yet to have a feeling which approaches in satisfaction that of having
signed, sealed and delivered an airplane for the United States Army. The
attitude that most non flyers have about pilots is distressing and often
acutely embarrassing. They chatter about the glamour of flying. Well, any
pilot can tell you how glamorous it is. We get up in the cold dark in order to
get to the airport by daylight. We wear heavy cumbersome flying clothes and a
thirty-pound parachute. You are either cold or hot. If you are female your
lipstick wears off and your hair gets straighter and straighter. You look
forward all afternoon to the bath you will have and the steak. Well, we get
the bath but seldom the steak. Sometimes we are too tired to eat and fall
wearily into bed.
None of us can put into words why we fly. It is something different for each
of us. I can't say exactly why I fly but I know why as I've never known
anything in my life.
I knew it when I saw my plane silhouetted against the clouds framed by a
circular rainbow. I knew it when I flew up into the extinct volcano Haleakala
on the island of Maui and saw the gray-green pineapple fields slope down to the
cloud-dappled blueness of the Pacific. But I know it otherwise than in beauty.
I know it in dignity and self-sufficiency and in the pride of skill. I know it
in the satisfaction of usefulness.
For all the girls in the WAFS, I think the most concrete moment of happiness
came at our first review. Suddenly and for the first time we felt a part of
something larger. Because of our uniforms which we had earned, we were
marching with the men, marching with all the freedom-loving people in the
And then while we were standing at attention a bomber took off followed by four
fighters. We knew the bomber was headed across the ocean and that the fighters
were going to escort it part way. As they circled over us I could hardly see
them for the tears in my eyes. It was striking symbolism and I think all of us
felt it. As long as our planes fly overhead the skies of America are free and
that's what all of us everywhere are fighting for. And that we, in a very
small way, are being allowed to help keep that sky free is the most beautiful
thing I have ever known.
I, for one, am profoundly grateful that my one talent, my only knowledge,
flying, happens to be of use to my country when it is needed. That's all the
luck I ever hope to have.
Courtesy of The Woman's Collection, Texas Woman's University
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