Though most tourists come to Savannah to see the magnificent old mansions in the Historic District, to explore the city’s beautiful squares with their statues and monuments, to walk the grounds of Bonaventure Cemetery, or to walk along the historic waterfront with its shops and eateries, there are many other, lesser known attractions you shouldn’t miss.
Yesterday we toured one of the best of them, the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum. Formed at Hunter Field in Savannah in the earliest days of World War II as the Eighth Bomber Command of the United States Army Air Force, the unit was charged with just one goal – to destroy Adolph Hitler’s war machine.
And flying from bases spread out across England, the brave men, most of them boys really, of the Eighth did their job. When the war started Nazi Germany had the biggest Army and Air Force in the world. By the time the Eighth’s mission was finished, Germany was in ruins, her great cities bombed to rubble, her vast military forces rendered impotent, and her ability to make war quashed.
Along the way they racked up an impressive record: the Eighth suffered one-half of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ casualties in World War II, with over 26,000 men killed and another 21,000 wounded or declared missing in action. The unit’s personnel earned 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, 850 Silver Stars, and 46,000 Air Medals. By war’s end, there were 261 fighter aces and 305 gunner aces in the Eighth, and 31 of those fighter aces exceeded 15 or more aircraft kills.
The Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum tells the story of those brave airmen who battled their way through enemy fighters and flew through walls of deadly flak to get to their targets and deliver their lethal bomb loads, and of the hard working ground crews that kept them flying.
We started our tour in the Prelude to War Gallery, which tells of Hitler’s rise to power and the Battle of Britain. Exhibits, photographs, and films give visitors an overview of how and why the war started and America’s entry in to the conflict.
Next we moved to the Mission Experience, where we attended a pre-flight briefing in a typical wartime Quonset hut, received ground crew orientation, and then became observers with an Eighth Air Force crew on a mission over enemy territory in the museum’s immersion theater. Several people in our group were obviously moved by the experience.
In the Combat Gallery we saw original aircraft, engines, and scale models, as well as a number of interesting exhibits. The museum has its own B-17 Flying Fortress, which is being restored as the City of Savannah, which was the 5000th airplane processed through Hunter Army airfield in Savannah during World War II.
There were several nice examples of the nose art that adorned Allied aircraft.
This impressive diorama showed the results of a successful bombing raid on an enemy fuel storage plant.
The Escape and Evasion exhibit is housed within a typical safe house used by European civilians to hide downed American and British airmen from German soldiers. The walls of the house held photographs of airman who were saved by these brave civilians, and the people who risked, and sometimes lost their lives to help them.
An exhibit on the experiences of fliers who were captured included a mockup of a POW barracks.
The Fly Girls of World War II exhibit is devoted to women in aviation, especially the role of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) during the war. These brave women ferried 12,652 aircraft across the country and to overseas bases to free men up for combat missions.
It is disgraceful that though they risked their lives, and 38 women died during their missions, they were often discriminated against and were not official members of the military. For those who died in the line of duty, their families received no insurance money, and even had to pay to have their coffins shipped home. It wasn’t until 1977 that the United States government finally recognized their contribution to the war effort and granted the surviving members official veterans’ status.
The grounds outside the museum building itself has several aircraft on display, including an F4C Phantom jet fighter, a Russian Mig17, and a Cold War B-47 Stratojet bomber. There is also the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles, a handsome stone chapel built to resemble an English chapel.
During our visit there was a reunion of World War II veterans of the Eight Air Force, and it was an honor to be among those heroes. We didn’t get to meet him, but one of them was among those pictured as a young man on the walls of the safe house, taken during his time on the run from German search parties.
We have toured quite a few military museums in our time, and Terry and I both rate the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum among the best of the best. It’s well worth a stop on your next trip south, and is easily accessible from Interstate 95 at Exit 102.
Depending on which weather report we choose to believe, we’re either going to get a lot of wind and rain today from Hurricane Sandy, or else we’ll only get scattered showers and a stiff breeze. So, depending on which it is, we may go play tourist again, or we may have a cozy stay at home day. I’m up for either one.
Thought For The Day – I miss the good old days when TV ads were for lawyers wanting me to sue somebody and ones about two people sitting in their twin bathtubs in the back yard.