by Carol Peszka
In October I was privileged to visit the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. It had been on my bucket list of museums, and when my husband had business in the area, I tagged along on the flight to Dayton expecting to tour the museum by myself. I did just that. For two whole days, I was mesmerized by the history of flight. Believe it or not, modern flight began with the advent of hot air-ballooning in the 1780s. Military ballooning began with the Civil War for both the Union and Confederacy and continued into the Spanish American War. Observation balloons came into play during WWI to chart enemy troop movements and were used again in WWII but in more limited numbers.
I thought the Wright brothers were strictly Kitty Hawk and Outer Banks notorieties. However, as evidenced by the Ohio automobile license plate that reads “Birthplace of Aviation,” it was in Dayton that the brothers began their claim to fame. On display is a reproduction of a 1909 Military Flyer that the Army bought as the first military flying machine that was heavier than air. Since I knew very little about these early days of flying, I marveled at the abundance of information on the Wright Brothers.
The museum is enormous. It bills itself as the world’s largest and oldest military museum, and I believe it. The museum consists of three huge aircraft hangers. I thought of them as Quonset huts that are interconnected. At the entrance desk, I was greeting by a lovely volunteer, Virginia Miller, who gave me all the information I would need to get started. First, there is no entrance fee, although they gladly take donations. There are two movies that play regularly, and there is a small charge for that. I chose to watch “D-Day Normandy,” a good choice for me since my keen interest in WWII began when my husband and I visited Normandy in 1994. The one-hour movie left me numb. It was a combination of old newsreel footage and animatronics that taught me the history of the D-Day invasion like no book ever did.
As I walked through the displays, I spoke with several of the men, most of whom are veterans of WWII. There are almost 500 veteran volunteers who love to share their knowledge of the war and the museum. I read with fascination the story of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, who became an untiring advocate for air power between the two world wars. In 1906, he wrote an article predicting that future wars would be fought in the air and under the sea. Mitchell became a controversial figure because of his brash methods and unwillingness to work within the chain of command.
He alienated his superiors by publicly attacking them, including the Army, Navy and White House. After returning to the U.S. in 1925, he continued to accuse the Army and Navy leadership of incompetence and an almost treasonable administration of national defense. He was court-martialed and suspended from active duty for five years. He chose to resign. He died Jan. 19, 1936, but was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for “outstanding pioneer service and foresight” in the field of American military aviation.
For those of us of a certain age, I found the information of movie stars in the service that included Jackie Coogan, Gene Raymond, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Ronald Reagan to be very interesting. In 1942 Glenn Miller was one of the country’s greatest dance band leaders, and in September of that year, he disbanded his orchestra to join the Army Air Force. Within a year, he organized and perfected one of the greatest aggregations of musicians ever assembled into a single unit, The Major Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band.
There are several artifacts on display including his summer uniform cap and eye glasses, trombone, music stand and sheet music. His last photo was taken Dec. 12, 1944. While traveling to entertain U.S. troops in France, his plane disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel. There was also quite a tribute to Bob Hope, who entertained our troops at home and overseas from 1941 to 1991. In 1997, he was designated an honorary veteran for his humanitarian services to the U.S. Armed Forces by Congress. He is the only individual in history to receive this honor.
On my second day of the tour, I found the women enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame beginning with Edith Berg, who in 1908 was the first woman passenger to fly with Wilbur Wright in a heavier-than-air power flight; continuing on to Jerrie Cobb, who was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Nixon in 1973 as the top woman pilot in the world. They have “enshrined” 41 women to date. The National Aviation Hall of Fame has enshrined over 225 individuals including recognizable names as John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh, Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, Alexander Graham Bell and Arthur Godfrey.
My walking tour found me approaching the World War II gallery that included the “Boxcar,” the aircraft that ended WWII. The “Boxcar” was a Boeing B-29 super fortress aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. It is amazing that a bomb the size of a large crate could do so much damage. I wasn’t quite prepared for the “Prejudice and Memory: A Holocaust Exhibit.” Almost 36,000 Army Air Force personnel were confined in POW camps in Europe. Despite their status as POWs, some Jewish and also non-Jewish Americans were sent to Buchenwald and other concentration camps, where they suffered the horrors of starvation, overwork, refusal of medical treatment, beatings and murder.
Along the way through the paths of the galleries, I met two very interesting veterans. The first was Robert Zeller of Toledo, Ohio, who was visiting the museum with his son for the second time. Robert was a pilot flying B-24s in the war, and we chatted for awhile. We have since reconnected, and I was able to send him pictures I took at the museum. The second was Lloyd Spanberger, who was attending an Air Force Reunion that night with his wife. He has written a book, “Our Mission Revealed,” which I can’t wait to read.
Today about a million visitors a year tour the museum. Everything is meticulously detailed, and it is incredible how many original artifacts are on display. The museum is a national treasure, and I highly recommend visiting it. It is open seven days a week from 9 to 5 every day but Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. In July, the museum broke ground on a $35.4 million fourth building, which will open in 2016.
More information on the museum at 937-255-3286 or www.nationalmuseum.af.mil.
Carol Peszka and her husband, Frank, have lived in Erdenheim for 40 years. She is a retired “domestic engineer” with five grandchildren, and Frank is still working as a quality control manager.