Pearl Harbor: A Unique Remembrance

Two brothers pay tribute to a pilot who barely escaped the December 7 attacks

The USS Shaw explodes during the attack on Pearl Habor. (Photo: National Archives)

To honor the courage and coolheadedness of a civilian flight instructor who was in the middle of giving a lesson when Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, airshow pilot Kent Pietsch (pronounced PEACH) and brother Warren, of the Texas Flying Legends Museum, are re-enacting her flight in Las Vegas on the 70th anniversary of the attack. Pietsch, a gifted pilot who flies some of the most entertaining routines on the airshow circuit today, will have no problem executing the evasive maneuver used by instructor Cornelia Fort to escape Japanese warplanes and save herself and her student that December 7. If you’ve seen the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora! you’ve seen the maneuver—only you saw it flown by a Boeing Stearman Kaydet, which was not the type of trainer that Cornelia Fort was flying that day. Pietsch owns and will fly the correct airplane type, an Interstate Cadet. As a matter of fact, he’ll fly a Cadet that was there in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and owned by the flight school where Fort worked.

Let’s hope TV cameras are on hand in Las Vegas so that people across the country can see the drama. There’s something about Fort’s story that most Americans can identify with. After the 9/11 attacks, we know what it’s like to feel confusion turn into horror, as the second plane hit. “I looked again,” Fort later wrote about her experience. She saw smoke in the harbor but couldn’t make herself understand until she saw a bomb explode. “I knew the air was not the place for my little baby airplane,” she wrote, “and I set about landing as quickly as ever I could.”

Fort was a wealthy glamour girl who fought convention to get her pilot’s license. Because she was an instructor in the type of airplane Pietsch performs in, he felt a connection to her and says he began to feel an obligation to publicize her story: She was killed while ferrying military airplanes in World War II. In the current issue, we published the story of Cornelia Fort and Kent Pietsch’s search for her airplane.

The brothers will fly the re-enactment at precisely the same time Fort saved her airplane from the Japanese attack. While Kent Pietsch plays Cornelia’s role, Warren Pietsch will fly an A6M2 Zero fighter owned by the Texas Flying Legends Museum. (It’s the only A6M2 flying today.) And there’s one more character needed to make the re-enactment complete: Fort’s flight student. That role will be played by Fort’s nephew, Dudley Fort Jr., a retired surgeon in Sewanee, Tennessee.

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