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When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Cornelia Fort was already in the air. She had escaped Nashville’s debutante scene at the age of 22 and headed to Hawaii for a fresh start as a flight instructor. When the bombs began to fall, Fort and her student were in the middle of a lesson. They barely made it back to ground that ill-fated morning. Still, when the U.S. Army Air Forces put out a call for women pilots to aid the war effort, Fort was one of the first to respond. She became one of just over 1,100 women from across the nation to make it through the Army’s rigorous selection process and earn her silver wings.

The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was the brainchild of trailblazing pilots Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran.  It gave women like Fort the chance to serve their country—and to prove that women aviators were just as skilled as men. While not authorized to serve in combat, the WASP helped train male pilots for service abroad and ferried bombers and pursuits across the country. Tragically, 38 WASP didn’t survive the war. But this social experiment seemed to be a resounding success until, with the tides of war turning, Congress clipped the women’s wings. The program disbanded and the women went home. But their bond remained.  Over the next few decades, they came together to fight for recognition as the military veterans they were—and for their place in history.

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