The Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum

We recently traveled to Savannah, Georgia, and decided to stop in at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum. It is right off I-95 at Pooler, Ga. I’d seen their website but wasn’t sure what to expect. Wow! Were we impressed!

The museum is housed in a beautiful facility that includes the extensive exhibits, research facilities, gift shop and a small cafe. The fees are extremely reasonable, especially since you could spend an entire day and not see all the exhibits. For anyone interested in World War II or in the history of the U. S. Air Force, this is the place to visit.8th AF Museum Rotunda

With the research that I have done on the WWII era for my novels, I probably knew more about the 8th Air Force than most visitors. Both my husband and I have always had an avid interest in the Second World War, the politics, the fighting, the men and women who fought, and those who stayed behind on the home front. We went from exhibit to exhibit looking at the artifacts and reading the explanations starting in the rotunda where busts of important 8th AF individuals  include Jimmy Stewart, the actor/movie star who piloted a B-24 on missions over Europe, and Jimmy Doolittle, who gained fame by leading the raid on Tokyo before taking command of the 8th.

The exhibits are set up so that the visitor is led through the war starting with the events that led up to the U.S. involvement. The origin of the 8th Bomber Command in January, 1942, just a month after the United States had declared war on Japan and Germany, at Hunter Field in Savannah, Ga., explains the museum’s location. In February, 1942, the 8th relocated to England where the English assigned them to air fields in southeastern England. Later, in February, 1944, the 8th was redesignated the 8th Air Force, still part of the Army Air Corp. The war would be over before the Air Force would separate from the Army as a separate entity.

In 1942 the 8th began flying missions over German occupied Europe. During the next three years the 8th would suffer more than 47,000 casualties, over 26,000 deaths and its men would be awarded numerous medals including seventeen Medals of Honor.

One of the most impressive exhibits is the B-17 bomber currently being restored named the City of Savannah. The plane takes up an enormous exhibition space. Although it is not open for visitors to climb aboard, just walking under its huge wings gave me goose-bumps. You can see the engines up close, read and watch videos of each crew members responsibilities, step inside a booth to experience the waist gunner’s position, and look in the ball turret to wonder how a grown man could fit in the small space. A B-24’s tail with its 50 caliber machine gun shows the cramped, awkward space occupied by the tail gunner.B17 Tail with Fighter

I enjoyed sitting in the tent watching and hearing the crew briefings before they embarked on a bombing mission. The equipment, uniforms, various insignia and personal memorabilia of many of the squadrons, both bombers and fighters, were displayed in a series of glass cases. Another fascinating section was the replica of a German prison camp where 8th AF crews that had been shot down were held. Stories of evasion and escape as well as artifacts and pictures of those interred help the visitor understand the experiences of the prisoners.

I don’t want to give the impression that the 8th AF Museum only deals with World War II. Other exhibits tell of Korea, the Strategic Air Command and the conversion to jets. Additional exhibits honor the Tuskegee Airmen, the women of the WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), an art gallery and even the girl scouts.

Outside we found even more. A B-47 Stratojet sits beyond the grounds of the Memorial Garden. A replica of a British chapel provides a place for quiet reflection similar to that available to the men of the Mighty 8th while in England. Out front an F-4C Phantom Jet and a MIG 17-A stand guard.

B47 StratojetBy the end of our allotted time my husband and I both agreed that we had to come back. We felt we had only skimmed the surface of the vast amount of information available. When we return we will be armed with the names of at least two WWII 8th AF veterans who lived in our home town. We will also plan to stay overnight in one of the nearby motels so that we can spend as much time as possible in the museum.

For anyone interested in World War II, the history of the Air Force or of aviation, this is a must-see museum.

The First Women in the Military

Today most of us know women who have served in the military and many who served overseas in combat. But how many of us know about the first women in the military? And how many know what our mothers and grandmothers did during WWII? Did they serve in the military? Red Cross? Defense industry? During World War II women’s lives changed. The vital role they played, both as civilians and in the military, impacted the outcome of the war and changed how American women viewed themselves.

Women filled the void left by men who either joined or were drafted into the military after Pearl Harbor. Factories converted to wartime production needed workers so, out of necessity, they hired women. Jobs formerly reserved for men opened up for women. Females worked in factories, hospitals, offices, and farms. And some of them joined the military. Of course, it took an act of Congress to allow women into the armed services, but with strong enemies across the Atlantic and Pacific the U. S. needed to utilize all its resources.

Before 1942 women who supported the military worked as civilians, except for Army Nurses. With Congressional authorization the Navy established the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services) and the Coast Guard SPARS (Semper Paratus – Always Ready) as part of the Department of the Navy. The Army chose to create two “auxiliary” units, the Womens Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and the Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).  These women’s auxiliaries had separate command structures, they were paid less than men, and they had no military benefits like life insurance or veterans medical benefits.  With WAAC’s being sent overseas, the Army recognized the problems and in 1943 the Women’s Army Corps was authorized as an official part of the Regular Army. But the WASP never gained the same status and it was disbanded in December, 1944. Authorization for women in the WAC, WAVES, and SPARS only lasted for the “duration plus six months.” At that time these women’s’ military organizations ceased to exist.

After much political discussion the WAC was reinstated in 1947. Many today may not realize that women remained segregated from the regular Army until 1978. Yes, it was post Vietnam when the separate Women’s Army Corps was abolished and women were integrated into the regular Army.

In the 1940’s many across America opposed women serving in the military. Back then most believed that a woman’s place was in the home. Culturally it was difficult for both men and women to accept. Many female enlistees were accused of being immoral or gay. Some men refused to let their wives, girl friends, daughters or sisters join up. But other families supported and encouraged their young women to do their patriotic duty.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt threw her support behind the women who volunteered to serve. The media used advertising to promote images of  women in uniform and Hollywood made movies depicting beautiful starlets serving in the various branches of the armed forces. Thousands of women answered the call.

What was it like for those first female soldiers? Seeing women in uniform was a new experience for everyone. Young ladies donned newly designed, skirted uniforms, little green sear-sucker fatigue dresses for their rigorous physical training and twill jumpsuits or coveralls for heavier work. Girls left home for the first time and found themselves  living in open barracks with no privacy, not even in the shower. They learned to march in step, keeping the seams of their heavy cotton stockings straight. Long hikes carrying heavy packs toughened the most feminine. Failing inspections drew the dreaded gigs and led to extra hours of KP (Kitchen Police) duty. In basic training male instructors taught them military regulations and procedures until enough women were trained and available to take over. Many specialized training courses took place on college campuses where the military  commandeered both space and teachers. Others trained alongside the men. Unlike modern female soldiers, the WAC’s of WWII were considered non-combatants so they were not trained to shoot or handle weapons.

In researching my latest work-in-progress I read some memoirs that give  fascinating, first- hand accounts of WAC’s wartime experiences. “Call of Duty, A Montana Girl in World War II” by Grace Porter Miller, “Mollie’s War” by Mollie Weinstein Schaffer, and “One Woman’s War, Letters Home from the Women’s Army Corp 1944-1946” by Anne Bosanko Green give three diverse accounts of Army life during the war.

And to answer my other question, my mother did clerical work as a civilian at several military bases as she followed my father from one post to another. My dad and two of his three brothers served in the Army, while the third worked in a defense plant. My mother’s sisters also worked in defense plants. So no WAC’s or WAVES in my immediate family. But my sister’s mother-in-law served in the WAC’s. The woman was quite a character and I wish I had had the opportunity to talk to her about her military service and her experiences during World War II before she died.  The “Greatest Generation,” both men and women, are quickly dying off and they take with them the stories of their service to their country so many years ago.

Today’s female soldiers, as well as all American women who work outside the home, benefit from what these brave women did during World War II. They stepped up and proved that they were capable of doing almost any job. I believe that the women’s movement had its origins in the mothers who, after the war, told their daughters they could do any thing they wanted to do. The women of the Greatest Generation believed it because of what they did in helping to win the war.