Stories that surprise and inspire
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Cornelia Fort was doing something few people expected a woman to do. This 22-year-old was in a small two-seater plane, flying over Honolulu’s Pearl Harbor, teaching a student to fly. At that time, most people felt that flying was a “man’s job.”
Cornelia had fallen in love with flying about two years earlier when, just for fun, she took a ride in a small plane. That ride changed her life. She took flying lessons and became such a good pilot that she was hired to teach others, one of the few flying jobs open to women in those days.
On that sunny December 7 morning in 1941 in the skies over Pearl Harbor, something happened that changed her life yet again—and the lives of many others. Cornelia saw a military-type plane zoom straight at her. She pulled up on her plane’s controls to keep from being hit. She was accustomed to seeing military planes because there were U.S. Navy and Army bases nearby. But the plane that almost hit her wasn’t American. It had a big red circle on its wings—the symbol of Japan. Looking down, she saw smoke billow up from ships in Pearl Harbor. A squadron of foreign planes flew by. Something shiny dropped from one plane and exploded in the harbor. As Japanese fighter planes sprayed her plane with bullets, she skillfully managed to land safely at a nearby airport,
She and her terrified student had just had a bird’s-eye view of Japan’s surprise attack on U.S. military ships and bases in Pearl Harbor, an attack that forced the U.S. to enter World War II. But the U.S. military wasn’t ready to fight air battles around the world. It didn’t have enough pilots. So it called on women to help. Cornelia joined the first women pilot’s unit to fly for the U.S. military, a group that became known as the WASPs--Women Airforce Service Pilots. They weren’t allowed to fly in combat overseas, but they handled much of the military flying in the U.S. Nevertheless, their missions were often dangerous. Sadly, through no fault of her own, in March 1943, Cornelia Fort became the first woman pilot to die flying for the U.S. military. The excellent job that she and the more than 1,100 other WASPs did showed that being a pilot could very well be a “woman’s job.”
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Amy Nathan's book Yankee Doodle Gals tells the stories of many women who served as pilots from 1942 to 1944, including Jacqueline Cochran and Nancy Love, the true leaders of the WASPs. The history of the group, the hardships they faced, the obstacles they overcame, and what has transpired since the end of the war are supplemented by numerous photos that complement the text.
For more information on the book, click here.
Stories About Regular Folks Doing Remarkable Things
I learned about the Caterpillar Club when I interviewed some flying WASPs—not the kind that buzz around on tiny wings. These WASPs were airplane pilots, the first women to fly for the United States military. They served during World War II: the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASP, for short).
The Caterpillar Club they told me about was named for silkworm caterpillars that helped save pilots’ lives. If a plane developed engine trouble in midair, pilots could float to safety by using a parachute made from silk, a lightweight cloth that silkworm caterpillars help create. These caterpillars use a spit-like substance in their mouths to spin a long silk thread that they wrap around themselves, forming a cocoon that they live in for several weeks until they become moths. Those long silk threads can then be unwound from the cocoons and woven together to make silk cloth.
About twenty years before World War II, a parachute company started the Caterpillar Club for people whose lives were saved by using a parachute to escape from a disabled plane. People could write to the company about their parachute rescue, pay a membership fee, and the company would send them a little caterpillar pin.
However, the WASP pilots I spoke with said that some pilots liked to feel they were part of the Caterpillar Club even if it wasn’t an aircraft’s fault that led them to use a parachute. During World War II, pilots—both men and women—trained to fly military aircraft for the Army in small open planes. The planes didn’t have a roof. If a nervous pilot-in-training forgot to buckle the seat belt and the plane tipped over, the pilot could fall out! Fortunately, they always wore a parachute. Landing safely—thanks to the parachute—not only let them feel part of the Caterpillar Club, but also helped the students remember to never, ever forget to buckle up again.
However, by World War II, many parachutes used by U.S. pilots weren’t made of silk. The silk-producing areas of the world were controlled then by Japan, which the U.S. was fighting in this war. Because U.S. companies could no longer get silk cloth, they began making parachutes from a new material scientists had just invented—nylon. Most parachutes are made of nylon today. Even so, the Caterpillar Club lives on.
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If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPs, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Through firsthand accounts, she tells how these early pilots they test-flew newly repaired aircraft, dragged banners behind their planes so male trainees could practice shooting moving targets with live ammunition (!), and ferried all kinds of aircraft from factories to military bases.
Yankee Doodle Gals will give you a new look at World War II and show you just how dramatically society has changed since then. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Caterpillars to the Rescue." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Stories that Surprise and Inspire
In 1963, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., President Lyndon Johnson awarded singer Marian Anderson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a president can give to a civilian (someone not in the military). He explained why this African American musician was being honored: “Artist and citizen, she has ennobled her race and her country, while her voice has enthralled the world.”
Twenty-four years earlier, however, some in Washington weren’t interested in honoring her but instead treated her unfairly. By then, she had given wonderful concerts of classical music in Europe and the United States, including at the White House. But in 1939, when a local university tried to have her perform at Constitution Hall, Washington’s concert hall, the managers of Constitution Hall wouldn’t let her, just because of the color of her skin.
Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, was upset by this example of discrimination against African Americans and arranged for Marian Anderson to perform that spring at the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 people filled the area in front of the memorial to hear Marian Anderson sing. Thousands more around the country listened on radio to a live broadcast of the performance. She started by singing “America,” then sang some classical pieces, and ended with spirituals, including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Newspapers and magazines wrote rave reviews, which let thousands more people learn about the dignified and courageous way she had triumphed over discrimination. Four years later, in 1943, she was at last invited to perform at Constitution Hall.
Did this end unfair treatment for this singer? Not exactly. In 1953, Marian Anderson was again denied permission to perform at a concert hall, this time by the Lyric Theater in Baltimore, Maryland. Luckily, this city’s music- and freedom-loving citizens came to her defense. Some wrote letters to newspapers complaining about “this insult to a great American singer.” Others threatened never to go to that concert hall again. Hundreds complained directly to the Lyric’s managers. Finally, Maryland’s commission on interracial relations persuaded the Lyric’s owners to let Marion Anderson perform there on January 8, 1954. The hall was filled to overflowing with her enthusiastic fans.
Ten years later, racial discrimination in concert halls finally became illegal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin at any place that serves the public, including concert halls, theaters, stadiums, restaurants, hotels, and anywhere else.
Source notes for this Minute may be found be clicking here.
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells about many little-known and yet important stories in civil rights history, including the story of Marian Anderson being the first African American to perform at Baltimore’s Lyric Theater in January 1954, and also the story about the merry-go-round that’s located not far from where Marian Anderson gave her famous 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Victory." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 27 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/