Tales of Valor

The Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum tells the powerful story of the hundreds of thousands of American men of the Eighth Air Force who fought during World War II to help restore peace and freedom to the world.
savannah, history, aviation
Written By Patty Jensen

There was a madman on the loose, and the world trembled with terror as it watched his evil pursuit of global domination. But this was no comic book villain, and there was no superhero to save the day. The madman was Hitler, and it would take real heroes to stop him—the kind you can discover every day at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum.

Here reside the stories of those brave men who rightfully earned the title “The Greatest Generation.” Now in their 80s and 90s, they were among the millions of young Americans who courageously fought in World War II to save the planet from its darkest days of tyranny and terrorism. The veterans honored at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum helped defeat Nazi aggression by serving in the largest air armada ever assembled—the Eighth Air Force. Eventually, 350,000 men would join this elite group to fight over war-torn European skies. Of those, 26,000 would never return home.

The Mighty Eighth, located in Pooler, Ga., just outside Savannah, is not your typical museum. Yes, you can tour exhibits, view artifacts of historical significance and see paintings hanging on the walls. But this museum is not about the items displayed in its 90,000-square-foot (27,432-square-meter) main building; what makes this museum so compelling are the heroic stories of the ordinary people whose lives were transformed by extraordinary commitment, sacrifice and patriotism.

Widely recognized as “one of the world’s most powerful museum experiences,” the Mighty Eighth hosts more than 100,000 visitors annually, from history buffs, school children and researchers, to aviation enthusiasts, active military and the veterans and families of those who served in the Second World War.

True Tales of Valor

Among the highlights of any visit to the Mighty Eighth is talking to one of the veterans from various WWII bomber groups who now serve as volunteers at the museum. Listening to their personal stories about that critical time in history is a fascinating and awe-inspiring experience.

“Like so many others, after we learned our country had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, I couldn’t wait to enlist,” recalls Paul Grassey, 89, who served in the Eighth Air Force as a B-24 Liberator pilot. “With several other members of my cadet graduating class, I was assigned to the 446th Bombardment Group in Bungay, England. We learned by the technique of on-the-job training, becoming seasoned veterans as our missions flew by. We developed many defensive skills, such as always flying in tight formations.”

Despite the pilots’ growing expertise and experience, luck became the most important factor when flying into flak, the exploding shells fired from anti-aircraft guns on the ground, which brought down more U.S. aircraft than the airborne Luftwaffe, according to Grassey, who piloted 13 combat missions during the war.

“Flak looks pretty innocent, just puffs of black smoke, but we quickly learned that death awaited us in those innocent-looking floating clouds,” he says. “On a typical mission enemy fighters attacked our airplanes before and after we had bombed our assigned targets, but the gunners in the crew felt that at least they had a chance to defend themselves against those attacks.

“When our huge formations of bombers and fighters headed out, we could see all that flak sitting out there and knew that for half an hour the tendency was to think, ‘Can we leave? Can we get out of here now?’ We knew we couldn’t. Our training taught us to take commands and follow orders. That is what we had to do and that is what we did.”

View from a Ball Turret

Veteran and fellow volunteer Bud Porter also remembers the fear created by flak’s frightening clouds, but, as a ball turret gunner, his viewpoint was from a tiny, glass- and metal-encased bubble attached to the bottom of a B-17 Flying Fortress.

“On my first mission, in March of 1945, I was in the ball flying over Hamburg, Germany, and I was scared to death. No one can really train you for what combat will be like,” explains Porter, 91, who served with the 95th Bombardment Group. “I remember heavy flak, and seeing all this stuff coming up and exploding all around me.

“I had been told that the safest spot on the aircraft was the ball turret because you could spin it around. So I had the turret going around as fast as it would go, with my eyes closed. Later, I was asked how the bomb drop went. I had to admit I didn’t know since my eyes were shut the whole time,” says Porter with a smile.

Unfortunately, his second mission would be worse.

“On a bombing mission our aircraft was hit, creating a giant hole in the wing between engines one and two on the left side, with oil gushing out onto the turret. After the plane was hit, it went on a momentary climb and then started spinning down. The pilot shouted, ‘Prepare to bail out!’ and it was complete panic.

“I came scrambling out of the turret and couldn’t find my parachute,” Porter remembers. “What, moments before, had been a well-trained crew was turning into complete chaos, and it was all happening in seconds.”

After dropping from 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), the pilots were able to muscle back control of the aircraft and straighten it out. The navigator was instructed to get the ship to the nearest friendly field. The crew landed safely in Brussels, Belgium, and later was flown back to their own airbase in England. Porter would go on to fly five more combat missions and four mercy flights.

“Of the 10 men in our crew, we all survived the war,” says Porter. “Now I’m the last of my crew to survive.”

According to Henry Skipper, president and CEO of the Mighty Eighth, Grassey and Porter are typical of the veterans who volunteer or visit the museum daily.

“What amazes me is how connected they still are to the Eighth, even though most were teenagers when they joined the war,” he says. “This was an incredibly pivotal time in their lives. They love just being here. For them, the museum is almost like home, and they treat it that way.”

For them, the museum is almost like home, and they treat it that way.

Restoring a Flying Machine

One of the Mighty Eighth’s prize possessions is an authentic B-17 bomber. Situated within the museum’s Combat Gallery, the tips of the gigantic aircraft’s silvery wings come literally within inches of each side of the gallery. The aircraft dominates the space—and visitors’ attention—and is the focus of a million-dollar restoration project.

This relic of a bygone time provides visitors with an opportunity to touch a piece of history. You can see the rivets that held the plane together, gaze at the tiny ball turret, and look in wonder at the four huge propellers and the waist gunners’ windows—all the while imagining what it must have been like to fly 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) above the ground, far from home and in the face of death.

Named in honor of the city that was the birthplace of the Eighth Air Force in 1942, the City of Savannah was the 5,000th aircraft to be processed through Savannah’s Hunter Army Airfield. One of 24,816 B-17 heavy bombers of various models that were built to carry out bombing campaigns against strategic military and industrial targets, this war bird never saw action—it was assembled too late to take part in the war effort.

Instead, the B-17 spent the next 40 years serving a variety of peacetime pursuits. In 1984, the massive aircraft was acquired by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and confined to long-term storage, tucked under the wing of the retired space shuttle Enterprise in a hangar in northern Virginia.

The aircraft might have languished there forever had it not been for a campaign stop by then U.S. President George W. Bush at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum. A bold request by the museum’s president led to a directive from Bush: “Get this man a B-17.” The word went out and the search began. Before long, the aircraft, called B-17G 44-83814, was rediscovered at the Smithsonian and arrangements were made to disassemble the bomber, truck it down to Pooler and reassemble the aircraft inside the museum.

Once back home and christened the City of Savannah, the real work on the B-17 began.

“For the past three years, a cadre of volunteers has been scouring the aircraft, pressure-washing the exterior and steam-cleaning the interior,” says Jerry McLaughlin, project manager for the B-17’s restoration effort. “When the cleaning was done, they began the arduous task of restoring the 67-year-old bomber.”

To bring the aircraft to its former glory, volunteers are rebuilding or acquiring everything from turrets and machine guns to World War II-era communications equipment. Even the floorboards are being replaced.

“When the restoration is completed, it will be the finest example of a B-17 in any museum,” McLaughlin says.

“When the restoration is completed, it will be the finest example of a B-17 in any museum,” McLaughlin says.

Experiencing the Mission

In this area of the museum, visitors are invited to imagine themselves as members of the Eighth Air Force based in England during World War II. With exhibits that re-create the actual environment, including vintage items from the time, the experience starts with getting ready for a preflight briefing in a Nissen hut.

The tour continues with the ground crew in another room, and ends with the Mission Theater, where you witness historic black-and-white war footage and are immersed in an Eighth Air Force bombing mission. The theater’s special effects include deafening noises, blinding lights and whooshing air to make you feel as if you really are on a WWII bomber.

The volunteers who guide you through this experience vary from high school students to WWII veterans. One volunteer is Spc. Robert Crawford, an Iraq veteran and active duty soldier in the 3rd Infantry Division stationed at Fort Stewart, just south of Savannah.

“I volunteer because I love history, and because this is such an important story to tell,” says Crawford. “The high school kids who tour here are really impressed by the whole experience and shocked when they grasp the number of men killed.”

The Eighth Air Force lost a higher percentage of service members from 1942 through 1945 than any other branch of the military, which underscores the risks that were taken by flying daylight missions over occupied Europe. From 1942 to 1943, bomber crews could go home after flying 25 missions. That number would eventually go up to 30 and then 35. But whether 25 or 35 missions, it was an extremely difficult number to reach, according to Crawford.

“The average for any crew was 13 missions before being shot down or killed,” he says.

Besides Crawford’s desire to relate veterans’ stories and share an important time in history, he has a personal reason for volunteering.

“My grandfather was a B-24 mechanic in the Pacific. I am humbled when I meet the veterans at this museum, and honored to tell their story. I’ve never met a vet who said he was a hero. They claim they are survivors and the real heroes are the ones who died for their country. But to me, they all gave the last full measure of devotion.”

“I volunteer because I love history, and because this is such an important story to tell,” says Crawford.

A Priceless Collection

Located on the second floor of the museum is the Roger A. Freeman Eighth Air Force Research Center. Named after the noted English aero-historian, the center is dedicated to promoting research on Eighth Air Force history and to expanding its priceless collection of more than 10,000 books significant to the history of the Eighth Air Force, as well as original manuscripts, photographs, oral history interviews, personal accounts, artifacts and works of art.

“Among the manuscript highlights are original diaries and letters, along with over 50,000 previously unpublished photographs,” says Vivian Rogers-Price, Research Center director. “The oral history collection begun by Maj. Gen. Lewis E. Lyle, a B-17 bomber pilot and founder of the museum, continues to expand and has been described as the premier collection of oral histories of Eighth Air Force veterans. Equally unique are the hundreds of unpublished personal accounts written by the veterans.”

The center’s artifact collection includes two Medals of Honor awarded to members of the Eighth Air Force. They belonged to B-17 pilot William R. Lawley Jr. for flying a crippled bomber with wounded crewmen safely back to England, despite his own multiple wounds; and Forrest L. Vosler, a B-17 radio operator who, while on a mission, was hit by shrapnel but still tended to the wounded tail gunner, repaired the damage to the radio equipment and sent off distress signals before the aircraft ditched into the sea. Vosler was the second enlisted airman to ever receive the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government.

Among the museum’s most coveted items are 80 hand-painted leather flight jackets. “We have hundreds of uniforms, so we don’t accept them anymore. But we will gladly take any leather bomber jackets,” Skipper says with a smile.

The museum receives thousands of donated items every year, and nearly every item has a story behind it. Sadly, donations are accelerating as the aging WWII veteran population dies off.

“People have many reasons for contributing memorabilia to the museum,” says Skipper. “For some, their fathers or grand-fathers never talked about the war, so it has no personal significance to them. For others, it is a way of ensuring their loved one’s heroic deeds and memory live on.”

Passing the Torch to the Next Generation

Perhaps the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum’s most important mission is ensuring that the stories told and the lessons learned from these World War II heroes are not forgotten. The museum plays an integral role within the educational community, from hosting more than 15,000 students annually on field trips to its participation in the Character Counts! program.

Officially recognized in 2003 by the State of Georgia as a Center for Character Education, the museum has embraced the challenge of sharing the positive character traits demonstrated by the members of the Eighth Air Force. Character Counts! is a national program that the museum introduced to the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System in 2010, realizing that students need the correct tools to be successful in school and in life. The program uses the six universal character traits of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship to create a positive learning environment where all students enter ready to learn and be better people outside the classroom as well.

“We realized that we have thousands of stories within our museum and archives that demonstrate strong, admirable character traits, and we needed to be able to share those stories with every person we could,” says Heather Thies, director of Education and Volunteers at the Mighty Eighth. “Character Counts! helps us to reach that goal.”

The program’s success has been gratifying, according to Skipper.

“The pilot site was Thunderbolt Elementary, which was seeking to create a proactive response to the alarming number of discipline referrals,” he says. “The principal quickly saw a huge change in her students. After implementing the Character Counts! program, behavioral problems declined from 80-plus in the 2009–2010 school year to less than five in the next year.”

The great thing about the Character Counts! program is that it intertwines seamlessly into the curriculum that teachers are already using, says Thies.

“The academics of literature, science, social studies, history and even math lessons that are taught on a daily basis are integrated with the Character Counts! six traits to help teach students how to develop strong character traits and work to be a better person in some way every day.”

A Source of Hope

Ultimately, the museum’s goal is to ensure that visitors take away a feeling of hope from their experiences at the Mighty Eighth, says Skipper.

“World War II was an incredibly dark time in our country’s history. Yet we came together to help save the world. The courage, commitment and sacrifices of the brave boys who served abroad, combined with the support and hardships endured by those on the homefront, including the loss of loved ones, is a tale of hope we can all learn from,” he says. “How these young men responded to the call of duty for their country is a commitment we hope that we could muster again.”

Veteran Grassey, a teacher in the Character Counts! program, shares the message he gives to students.

“I look at these youngsters and I tell them the world was filled with evil, but we had very good people to fight, and we won. The world is still a dangerous place, but I don’t worry because when I look at them, I see the next ‘Greatest Generation.’”

Exploring the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum

It’s easy to spend a day or more exploring the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum. Each exhibit captures your attention, and it’s hard to pull yourself away from one to move onto the next. Here is a list of the museum’s offerings. You can try to narrow it down, but if you can’t fit it all in on a single visit, you likely will want to come again.

Major Gen. Lewis E. Lyle Rotunda: The rotunda is named in honor of the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum’s founder, who flew 75 bombing missions over Europe during WWII, never losing a single man.

The Colonial Group Art Gallery: The art gallery displays paintings from the world’s leading aviation artists.

Prelude to War: WWI left Europe exhausted and the people apathetic. The National Socialist Party (the Nazi Party) exploited the situation when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933.

From Savannah to the United Kingdom: Witness the birth of the Mighty Eighth and its humble beginnings in Savannah and the United Kingdom.

The Mission Experience: Imagine yourself as a member of the Eighth Air Force in WWII. Get ready for your preflight briefing in a Nissen hut, Flight Line operations with the ground crew, and the Mission Theater, where you are immersed in an Eighth Air Force bombing mission.

Combat Gallery: The gallery houses original aircraft, including a B-17 bomber, engines and scale models, as well as a multitude of exhibits.

Escape and Evasion: This exhibit is a replica of a “Safe House,” which allowed downed airmen to escape from Nazi-occupied countries and return to England.

Prisoner of War: The POW exhibit describes the daily life of a flier and the harsh living conditions of prisoners of war in a Stalag Luft.

Honoring the Eighth: This is a collection of artifacts from various WWII Eighth Air Force groups. Each display tells something of the extraordinary accomplishments of the group.

The Lights Come on Again: At the end of the war, after four years of blackouts and sacrifice, Americans celebrated a return to peacetime.

Airmen Memorial: The “Cost of Victory in War” is a fitting memorial to all Eighth Air Force personnel who died between 1942 and 1945. The museum’s “Roll of Honor” holds the names of those who were killed while serving with the Eighth Air Force during those years.

Post World War II: This exhibit showcases a partial B-52 vertical tail stabilizer, a Quail Decoy missile and MiG 21 nose.

Hall of Valor: Here are outstanding individuals who served with the Mighty Eighth during World War II. Many of these men paved the way to an end to the war.

Fly Girls of WWII: Learn the history of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and women’s involvement in flight and war efforts.

Don’t You Know? There’s a War On!: A homefront exhibit examining civilian efforts to win the war.

Roger A. Freeman Eighth Air Force Research Center: Here are original manuscripts, photographs, oral history interviews and personal accounts, artifacts and works of art.

Chapel of the Fallen Angels: Part of the Memorial Gardens, visitors have the opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices made by veterans. This beautiful stone chapel is built to resemble an English chapel and is meant to give visitors a place of quiet reflection.

For more information go to mightyeighth.org.

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