100th Report to Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum
Harry Crosby Reports on the 100th at the Opening of the Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum:
On Tuesday, May 13, (1996) when the Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum opened in Savannah, there were 3400 veterans, families, historians, admirers, and buffs in attendance. When we were in England in 1943-45, the 8thhad 60 bomb groups, 20 fighter groups, three Air Divisions, four major headquarters, maintenance, and repair. Even so, thanks to the good work of Owen D. “Cowboy” Roane and Chuck Harris, the 100th with it’s contingent of 125 at the opening provided about 1/20 of the crowd. As one Museum volunteer said, “Every time I turned around I saw another member of the 100th.” That’s pretty good.
The museum is more than worth seeing, I hope we will have a reunion there. It is set up on twelve acres, a grant from Chatham County. It is big, about four times the size of Hanger Two back in Thorpe Abbotts. Its front looks like the White House in Washington, but it is a darker color, a tan. Through the big front doors you enter a rotunda, its ceiling rounded up as huge white parachute canopy. On the right you see a gift shop and book store, on the left a lunch room that looks like an English pub. Open stairways lead up on both sides to balconies and on to meeting rooms, galleries, a library, exhibits and offices. Off to the side there is the Memorial Garden to honor those who did not come back. At the back of the rotunda, you sign up for “the experience”
In groups of up to 30 visitors enter a long, curving hall with photographs and text depicting the rise of Nazi Germany followed by a section dramatizing Britian’s long fight to stave off Hitler;s attack. A sharp bend in the hall depicts Pearl Harbor, America’s entry into the war, and the creation of the 8AF in Savannah in 1942. With this background established, the group enters a mock-up of a Nissan hut. Construction of this small auditorium was made possible by a gift from our Brit friends at the Flying Control Tower Museum at Thorpe Abbotts. The supports of the hut once held up one of our building. After a realistic briefing for a mission, the group enters a three screen multi-media theater for the virtual reality of a mission over Germany.
It’s all there, a mission from start to finish, in the dead of night, the field order comes in, the duty officer goes to work, and the base swings into action. You see the mess halls, armaments, ordnance, the military police, the duty orderlies, everyone you may not have seen before. You take-off, assemble, penetrate the coast and encounter flak and hostile fighters. It’s a rough flight.
Flak explodes all around, and German planes send their tracers at us. A bomber up ahead of us explodes and we have to fly through a group of tumbling bodies. A woman in front of me said. “My husband took this, but I can’t.” and rushed out. At my side a woman and her daughter sobbed. After this experience, the numbed group goes out into a large space which has a Mustang (provided by David Tallichet) chasing and ME-109. There is diorame showing Deenthorpe air field once the home of the 401st Bomb Group.
The 100th owe a lot of people a great debt, beginning – of course – with Lew Lyle and Buck Shuler. Museum Director Gray Miller and the book and gift shop operator, Jack Burton, have done a superb job. The 100th liaison, Red Harper, have been a active member of the Board of Directors. Sherman Small and Charles Dye, past presidents of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, were important. Wayne Corbett, the Museum Public Information Officer, himself a great guy, says that of the local supporters, County Commissioner Russ Abolt “did more than everyone else put together.” He says also that Marcus Holland, of the Savannah New-Press, was very helpful.” Another local reporter who had a sense of what we did was Jack Warner, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “They were little more than boys when they carried the wrath of the West into the dark heart of Nazi Germany, shrouding the sun in thundering clouds of steel.” Of the 51 volunteers on duty the first day, only 25 were 8AF veterans. All volunteers were very well dressed, their neatness and courtesy a symbol of their respect for us.
At the opening there were many of the 8th Air Force luminaries and heroes, including Little Friends Francis “Gabby” Gabreski, Robert Johnson, Jerry Johnson, and John Trulock all members of the 56th Fighter Group, the legendary :Zemke’s Wolfpack.” Bob Morgan and Jim Verunis, pilot and co-pilot of the “Memphis Belle.” Were there as was Paul Tibbetts, who lead the first high-altitude flight to Rouen and later dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Alan Cass, creator of the Colorado Glenn Miller Muesum who spoke at our last reunion, gave a detailed and interesting slide show about the music we loved. The 100th’s friend and member, Steve Miller, was there, as someone wrote, to “keep his father’s music alive, to help us remember its magic and wonder, its hope and happiness.” Roger Freeman, who first called us the “Mighty” 8th, was there. His verdict about the Museum? “Magnificent!” Did you ever hear what Roger thinks of us? “The greatest generation in the history of the United States, with the exception of the Founding Fathers.”
The members of the 100th who signed up at the happy hour hosted by President Chuck Harris, included: Bruce Alshouse, Gene Bankston, Barwick Barfield, Joe Blume, Ralph Bragg, F.L. Cates, Clarence Cherry, Dewy Christopher, myself, Harry Cruver, Pappy Daiger, John Darr, Robert Dell, Bob Beatson (an honorary member). Eugene Fellmeth, Grant Fuller, Bob Gildea, Butch Goodwin, Gene Greenwood, Joe Giego, Hal Granger, Bryon Green, Keith Griffith, Bill Hoffman, Gene Hogge, Ed Hovde, Tom Hughes, Tom Jeffrey, (and his brother, who resembles him very much), Bernard Kerrick (a B-24 pilot, but one of us), Bob Kirby, Ed Koch, Ken Lemmons, Albert Lochra, Jack McGrath, John McLaughlin, Ray Miller, Ray Morton, John Peters, Brain Rathburn, Jan and David Riddling, Cowboy Roane, Johnny Robbins, Sr., Walter Schneider, Chester Skiba, Virgil Smith, Kenneth Stoecklin, David Tallichet, Carl Thorkelson, Patti Trapnell, Harry Vaughn, Bud Vieth, Jack Wallace, Fred Wiegman, Irv Waterbury, Paul West, Chuck Winters, Bob Wolff, and H. Yates. I did not list their names because they weren’t on the register, but many wives were there, and we were glad, glad, glad, that they were. We want them to know that they helped us endure.
The museum is not only about our time in England. One of the strongest qualities of the Museum is its attention to the whole history of the 8th including its participation in Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and Desert Storm. Even so, the focus is on us. I do not care who you are, you will see something you did not know about what we did while we were in Thorpe Abbotts. Officers will see what enlisted men did, and the reverse is true. Combat crews will come to appreciate, more than before, the devoted service of the ground crews.
About Savannah and the Museum as a possible site for a 100th reunion: it’s where the 100th began. The museum is a great show. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” said Joe Trapnell’s widow, Patti. Charles Hacker, former managing director of the Radio City Music Hall, commented, “This is the closest thing to the reality of our war that I’ve seen.” Savannah is a showplace of the Old South, Carl Thorkelson and Harry Cruver, who did the tour of the Historic Section were impressed. Chuck and Betty Harding and Irv and Clara Waterbury sampled some of the more interesting eateries on the waterfront and found them memorable.
A few eons ago, before history turned its attention to our War, Tom Jeffrey said, “I hope we will not be forgotten. Somewhere, someplace I hope someone will keep an A-2 jacket or something to remind future generations that when the time came when we were needed, we were there.” The Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum is something more than an A-2 jacket. The Museum conveys the enormity of the 8th. 350,000 men and women; about 200,000 of whom were combat crewmen or whom 26,000 were killed. Twenty-eight thousand became P.O.W.’s. Nine thousand bombers were shot down by enemy fire. But the museum goes beyond grandeur. Our dedication and tenacity, those signs of individual valor, are shown, dramatically, realistically. The 8AF is memorialized as “the Air Force that was never turned back.”