National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force

Here’s my latest in The Wall Street Journal, a review of the Mighty Eighty Air Force Museum outside Savannah. Next year, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg will release another of their HBO miniseries, based on the 100th Bomb Group, part of the Eighth Air Force, again using real life airmen they researched in the museum’s archives.


Sacrifice Remembered, Symbol Restored

By Mark Yost

Pooler, Georgia

‘The Greatest Generation” is a common moniker given to the men and women who served in World War II. But after going through the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in this suburb of Savannah, it will be clear that the airmen of this highly distinguished unit earned some superlatives all their own.

B17Most people probably know the story of the Eighth Air Force from “Twelve O’Clock High,” the film and TV series based on the unit’s missions. But visitors will learn that the Eighth Bomber Command (redesignated the Eighth Air Force in February 1944) was activated at nearby Hunter Army Airfield in January 1942 and almost immediately departed for England. Its primary mission: bombing industrial targets inside Nazi Germany. At its peak in 1944, the Eighth had some 200,000 men and on any given day from its airfields in East Anglia, England, could launch 2,000 four-engine bombers and 1,000 escort fighters on a single mission, making it the single-largest air armada in history. But those missions came with a heavy price: Some 47,000 men from the Eighth were either killed, captured or reported missing in action, accounting for half of all the U.S. Army Air Corps’ casualties. One of the Eighth’s units, the 100th Bombardment Group, earned the nickname “the Bloody Hundredth” for the casualties it suffered. In an October 1943 raid on Münster, Germany, for example, only one B-17 out of 13 made it back to the airfield at Thorpe Abbotts.

Those are the facts and figures that are presented in the 90,000 square feet of space divided into a dozen galleries that include artwork, diaries, maps, photos and dioramas, as well as the usual artifacts. The most recent addition among the bomber jackets, caps, bullets, ball turrets and medals is a fully restored B-17G Flying Fortress, a gift from the National Air and Space Museum that was unveiled on Jan. 28 and now sits in the center of the museum’s Combat Gallery. The project, which took six years, was important because some 4,700 B-17s were lost during the war. Afterward, most were destroyed and sold for scrap metal. Today, fewer than 50 B-17s remain, with only about a dozen restored to flying condition.

There is also “The Mission Experience,” where visitors are given an overview of the Eighth Air Force, attend a mock preraid planning meeting, and then go into a theater for a film that tries to give them a sense of what it was like to be at 32,000 feet, with temperatures well below zero, flying for hours on oxygen, constantly harassed by German fighter planes and flak, the English abbreviation for Flugzeugabwehrkanone, or “aircraft-defense gun.”

But where the museum excels is in telling the personal stories of the men and the missions of the Eighth Air Force. Among them, Robert Rosenthal, who a plaque tells us was the pilot of Royal Flush, that lone B-17 that returned from the raid on Münster. “With two engines out, a hole in the starboard wing, and three wounded crewmembers, Rosie maneuvered his stricken bomber like a fighter which forced the attacking Germans to seek an easier target.”

In a small gallery honoring Medal of Honor winners is the story of First Lt. Donald J. Gott, whose plane was heavily damaged and caught fire during a raid over Saarbrücken in November 1944. “Antiaircraft fire had wounded the flight engineer’s leg and severed the radio operator’s arm causing him to lose consciousness,” his plaque reads.

Because the radio operator was unconscious, Gott refused to give the order to bail out. Instead, he flew the plane on one engine to friendly territory. “He ordered his crew to bail out while he and his co-pilot, William Metzger, Jr., attempted to land the aircraft with the wounded radio operator aboard. At only 100 feet above the ground, the aircraft exploded . . . ”

The highly decorated unit’s most devastating day might have been Oct. 14, 1943, known as Black Thursday, its second mission to take out the German ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. As one of the informative panels notes, the Allies did not have the air superiority they would enjoy some eight months later in Normandy for the D-Day landings. That morning 251 B-17s left England and by the time the sortie returned, 60 bombers had been lost. An additional 12 subsequently had to be scrapped, and 121 needed extensive repairs. Worse yet, 600 airmen were lost over enemy territory, and those planes that did make it back carried five dead and 43 wounded.

While much is made of the B-17—both here and in the history books—the museum also tells the story of the Second Air Division, a unit of the Eighth Air Force that included some 9,000 officers and 45,000 enlisted men who flew the slightly smaller B-24 Liberators on some 94,000 sorties during 400 missions from 1942 to 1945. And it has a section devoted to the VIII Fighter Command, the escort squadrons of P-38 Lightnings, P-47 Thunderbolts and, later in the war, P-51 Mustangs that tried to keep the German fighters from decimating the bombers before they could reach their targets.

The museum also doesn’t shirk from discussing the political feud between Eighth Air Force commanders and Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris of RAF Bomber Command, who ridiculed U.S. daylight bombing tactics and greatly underestimated the accuracy of the American’s Norden bombsight. The men of the Eighth Air Force not only destroyed Germany’s industrial might, but also inflicted far fewer civilian casualties than did British nighttime raids.