The Mighty Eighth remembered
Norman Wells looks at the Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum at Savannah on the sixtieth anniversary of the 'Friendly Invasion' of England.
Like many East Anglian pubs, 'The Lamb' at Dedham frequently ran out of beer in World War II after locally-based American servicemen had paid a visit. On a September evening in 1994, two retired USAF pilots sat in the pub in a celebratory, if less thirsty, mood along with an entourage of designers, video producers, historians and others. Their toast? The planned Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum - 3,000 miles away in Savannah, Georgia.
The US Eighth Air Force was formed in Savannah in January 1942. In May 2002 the museum marked its sixth anniversary with the dedication of its latest additions - the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles; and its fully-restored B-47B Stratojet (s/n 50-0062), representing the Eighth's early post-war era.
The two pilots in The Lamb that evening were a little bit special. Both were former commanding generals of the US Eighth Air Force! Lt General Gerald Johnson, a P-47 18-kill 'ace' with the wartime 56th Fighter Group, went on to lead the Eighth during the early seventies; and Lt General E.G. 'Buck' Shuler Jr had led the force during the Gulf War. Now he was in charge of getting the museum off the ground.
Their meeting was a happy coincidence during a week-long fact-finding tour of the UK by Buck and his museum advisers from the States. No US-based tribute to the Eighth Air Force could afford to ignore those that already existed in England. The two generals had met up earlier that day at the American Cemetery at Madingley, near Cambridge, along with 'Mighty Eighth' author and historian Roger Freeman, who had been hosting Gerald Johnson. Next stop was a meeting with Ted Inman - boss of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford - and a trip round the exhibits. For me, a humble hack privileged to be the UK co-ordinator for the trip, it was a first proper look inside a B-17. It wouldn't be my last.
Other excursions that week included the former Eighth Bomber Command HQ at High Wycombe; the 390th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Parham; the RAF Museum; the 'Carrier' exhibit at Yeovilton; the Rebel Air Museum at Earls Colne; and, for Buck Shuler, a special trip to RAF Mildenhall to meet USAF officials.
The team also wanted to take something back to Savannah. The museum exhibit plans included the 'Mission Experience' - a hi-tech, multimedia piece of theatre which would attempt to put over something of the flavour of what it was like to fly a mission in a WWII Eighth Air Force heavy bomber. The idea was to create a kind of briefing room in a reconstructed Nissen hut, through which visitors would move on to a presentation 'outside' on the work of ground crews. The main mission would then be 'flown' in a soundproof chamber housed within a replica WWII control tower.
At Buck's request, those splendid folks who run the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Thorpe Abbotts provided a set of frames from one of the airfield's old Nissen huts. These, along with some period bicycles and other appropriate props, were later flown to the States from Mildenhall in a USAF C-17.
Buck's last UK visit that week was to Rougham, near Bury St Edmunds, for a Sunday airshow. The general, whose USAF career had spanned more than 30 years, was astonished to see the enthusiasm for Eighth Air Force history among the show visitors - and was delighted to be able to have lunch in the nearby Flying Fortress pub. He was even asked to sign autographs. He said: "In all of my many visits to the UK, while on active duty and subsequently, I have always been immensely impressed with the genuine feelings exhibited by the citizens of Great Britain for the Eighth Air Force and its contributions in winning WWII. These feelings are also felt for the Royal Air Force, which defeated the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940 and then, joined by the Mighty Eighth, ultimately crushed the German Air Force - permitting the cross-channel invasion and the final defeat of Nazi Germany. The combined losses and sacrifice of the RAF and the 'Mighty' Eighth are unmatched in the history of warfare."
The general's affable, modest nature - which has contributed much to museum's success - belies his achievements. These include a total 7,500 flying hours (starting on B-52s in 1960), 209 of which were in combat on F-4Cs in South-East Asia. One of his Phantoms has just been immortalised in Corgi's 'Unsung Heroes' model range.
He added: "The RAF were very kind to me as the Commander of the Eighth, affording me the opportunity to fly the Tornado and the Victor tanker from RAF Marham. I have been a member of the RAF Club in London since 1988, and hope for a return visit in the near future."
Back in Savannah, the success of the Mission Experience would depend in part on the collation of as much original film footage as possible. Savannah-based 'Technical Production Services' was eventually able to locate several hours' worth of original 8mm film footage - much of it in colour and some unseen for fifty-odd years. All of it was then converted to digital video format.
But the Mission Experience needed a linking theme and, therefore, new footage. In 1995, the Collings Foundation's B-17G, 'Nine-O-Nine', was used at New Smyrna Beach airfield in Florida to shoot extra sequences. Five young actors were employed for the day, while I had the job of climbing through the plane making sure their kit looked as authentic as possible. As on so many occasions during the museum's creation, Roger Freeman's phone line was kept busy with question-and-answer sessions.
It would not be fair to give too much away about the completed Mission Experience and its other special effects. Suffice it to say that most visitors emerge very quietly. Many, particularly veterans and their families, have a tear or two in their eyes. What makes the whole sequence - from briefing to finish - especially poignant is that groups are hosted by, whenever possible, actual WWII Eighth Air Force veterans.
Indeed, the Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum is a place for reflection. It is not an airframe collection; rather, it is about people. Its huge memorial gardens - with their commemorative walls carrying hundreds of plaques paying tribute to units, crews and individuals - bear testimony to that. The museum's own publicity says it "honours the courage, character, and patriotism embodied by the men and women of the Eighth Air Force from World War II to the present. The museum celebrates these values for the benefit of future generations". Post-11 September, those sentiments probably carry more weight than ever before for most Americans.
C. J. Roberts, president of the museum, said that since opening it had welcomed more than half-a-million people, educated thousands of schoolchildren and helped to link one generation to another. Speaking of one of the museum's prime movers, Major General (USAF ret.) Lewis E. Lyle - who led the 379th Bomb Group in WWII - Roberts added: "When Lew Lyle and others began planning this institution they envisioned a museum that was nothing less than world-class: an institution that celebrated the deeds, the courage and the sacrifice of the men and women of the Eighth Air Force."
The education factor is crucial for the museum. The State of Georgia now requires all students to participate in 'character education programmes' - many of the principles of which are implicit in the museum's themes. So visiting groups of schoolchildren are a common sight. Buck Shuler, who now chairs the museum's board of trustees, added: "The one aspect of the museum I am most proud of after six years of operation is the education programme. We have been successful in imparting basic knowledge about WWII, and the sacrifices of many men and women, to students in Georgia and South Carolina. Through the museum's formal education programmes we have been able to augment school curricula and provide historical perspectives the students would not ordinarily have gained.
"Soon, with the full development of the post-WWII exhibits and expanded education programmes, the full story of the Eighth Air Force will be completed for all participating students, bringing them right up to the War on Terrorism."
I have focused on the Mission Experience because of my close involvement with it. But there is much, much more to see besides. Other exhibits include a Battle of Britain story theatre; a new 'Chapel of the Fallen Eagles' based on the style of English medieval churches; a look at the fate of Allied airmen captured as prisoners of war; an extensive range of individual Eighth Air Force groups' artefacts; a fast-growing collection of original paintings; photo galleries; and a library and research facility.
The sheer scale of the facility, and its proximity to hotels, Interstate I-95 and Savannah airport (40 minutes flying time from Atlanta International), make it an ideal venue for large air force reunions and other special events. And, for visitors to the attractions of Orlando, it's an easy drive away. Savannah itself is one of the USA's best-preserved historic cities, and frequently appears in films. Forrest Gump's bench was sited on one of its 18th century squares.
The city was saved from destruction in the Civil War by General William Sherman, who gave it to President Lincoln as a present for Christmas in 1864. Sherman, apparently, was descended from a family in...Dedham, Essex. Now, isn't that where we came in?!