National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force

The B17 City of Savannah is being restored at the museum

It was our last day on Hilton Head. The bad weather that had been forecast had finally arrived - it had rained all night and looked like it would rain all day. No walks on the beach for us today. But I had an activity in mind. On the drive down I had seen a billboard advertising the Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force. I love airplanes, especially old historic airplanes from WWII. I am also a wargamer and military history enthusiast. Finally, I had family history. My dad had served in the Eighth Air Force during WWII. It was perfect for me. Sandy thought it might be interesting too.

It was about an hour drive to the museum. There was lots of space to park, enough that it was a shuttle parking lot for St. Patrick's Day (which was today) activities. Apparently it is a major occasion in Savannah, so much so that they can't accomadate all the people and certainly not all the cars that try to go downtown. No such problem today - with the pouring rain there were only a handful of cars. We felt badly for all the effort people had put into the St. Patrick's Day celebration. We felt especially bad for the volunteers standing out in the parking lot in the rain to direct all the cars that weren't coming. At least the rain didn't affect us other than requiring a sprint from our car to the museum door.

Plaques of the various groups of the Second Air Division

At first I wondered why there was a museum for the Eighth Air Force in Savannah. I soon learned from one of the exhibits that on January 28, 1942, the Eighth Air Force had been activated at the National Guard Armory on Bull Street in Savannah Georgia. By September 1944 it had grown to over 2700 bombers and 1300 fighters. Stationed in England, it was the main force for the Allied strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. During the three years it was active in the war in Europe approximately 350,000 officers and enlisted men served in the Eighth Air Force. Over 26,000 of those were killed in action. By comparison, the entire U.S. Navy, with 4.1 million men, lost 37,000 men in all of WWII in all theatres. The Eighth Air Force continued to serve after WWII, even when the Air Force became a separate service from the Army. Today it is based at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

Sandy crews a waist gun

The museum had a lot of interesting exhibits. There was a mock Quonset Hut where we sat on benches, just as WWII air crews did during their briefings, and watched a movie that depicted a typical Eighth Air Force bombing mission during WWII. There were maps showing the location of every Eighth Air Force installation in England. There was a large scale model of a typical bomber base. There were plaques and story boards telling about history, units and missions. There was also a huge hangar area. The main attraction there was a B17, the City of Savannah, which is being restored to its full combat configuration, although for a static display and not to flyable condition. Around it were various pieces from WWII aircraft: the nose of a B24, the waist gunner station of a B17, engines, propellers, oxygen gear, uniforms and weapons. Hanging from the ceiling were models of a B24 Liberator, a P51 Mustang and a German Messerschmidt Bf109 fighter. Hanging from the ceiling around the aircraft displays were the flags of each of the groups of the Eighth Air Force. On one end was the flag of my dad's unit, the 466th Bomb Group, known as The Flying Deck because each of the four squadrons had a different suit from a deck of cards as their symbol.

Bomb group banners hanging with a model B24 liberator

After touring the museum I had to stop at the gift shop. I bought a tshirt of the B17 City of Savannah. Just to support the restoration project, of course. I'm not much of one for tshirts. I also got a B24 hat for my dad for Father's Day. Don't tell him - it's a secret. We had lunch at the coffee shop at the museum then headed back to Hilton Head. It was a very interesting trip.

Since getting back I have been inspired to learn more. Right now I am reading The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24's Over Germany 1944-45. It follows, among others, later US Senator George McGovern, who was a B24 pilot during the war. The book is different because most histories of the bombing campaign against Germany focus on the B17 Flying Fortress even though many more B24's were flown by the US Army Air Force. I have a special interest since my dad flew in a B24.

The book was written by Stephen Ambrose, who was a famous military history author. Among other books he wrote Band of Brothers, which followed an infantry company of the 101st Airborne Division, from training through D-Day and across France. The book was turned into a famous miniseries on HBO. Shortly before his death in 2002, he was accused of plagiarism for The Wild Blue. The book contains many passages taken directly from another book, Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down Over Germany in World War II by Thomas Childers, without attribution. Since then many other examples of plagiarism by Ambrose have come to light and his reputation has been severely damaged. It's sad but I still am enjoying the book and learning a lot from it.