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The Mighty 8th Air Force Museum [VIST]



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The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force opened its doors on May 14, 1996. Located in Pooler, Georgia, just a short distance from Downtown Savannah, where the Eighth Air Force was activated in January 1942, the museum features over 90,000 square feet of exhibits, interactive experiences, artifacts, and a chance to walk beneath the wings of the museum’s restored B-17 Flying Fortress, City of Savannah.

THE MUSEUM’S MISSION

The primary mission of the museum is education. Every day, schoolchildren from around the country arrive at the museum to learn about the men, some who were not much older than them, who went to war. Over 20,000 schoolchildren visit the museum every year.

The Mission Experience provides visitors with details of the experience of flying a bombing mission as a member of an aircrew stationed in England during World War II through three short films. Presentations begin every 30 minutes inside a replica Nissen hut. One leader will be forever linked to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, Major General Lewis E. Lyle. The museum’s rotunda is named in his honor. Lyle flew with the Eighth in WWII. He piloted the “oooLD Soljer” for 16 missions and flew more than 70 additional missions in other B-17s.

THE EIGHTH AIR FORCE

The story of the Eighth Air Force began in January 1942 when the U.S. Army Air Corps began the herculean task of standing up the Mighty Eighth.

From its beginnings in Savannah with seven men and zero aircraft, to over 350,000 personnel, 2,000 B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, and 1,000 fighter aircraft spread across over 100 airfields in England, the Mighty Eighth was transformed into the largest concentration of air power in the world. 

Chapel of the Fallen Eagles: The chapel was built to reflect the gothic-style English chapels of the 16th century, like those near the Eighth Air Force bases. The Chapel features stained glass windows highlighting some of the bomb groups assigned to the Eighth Air Force.

By the war’s end, the statistics of the Mighty Eighth were staggering. By May 1945, the Eighth had flown over 600,000 sorties and dropped over 670,000 tons of bombs. The Eighth suffered the most casualties of any WWII command — 26,000 airmen killed in action and 28,000 prisoners of war. It also racked up 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and more than 420,000 Air Medals.

THE BOEING B-17 FLYING FORTRESS

In August 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps tendered a proposal for a multi-engine bomber to replace the Martin Company B-10. The Boeing company answered with the B-17, designed and produced at the company’s expense. The prototype, which Boeing designated the Model 299, took its maiden flight in July 1935, and the performance was impressive. 

The City of Savannah: The Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress was a heavy bomber powered by 4 Wright Cyclone R1820 Radial engines producing 1,200 horsepower each. The B-17 was armed with 13 .50-caliber machine guns, had a range of 2,000 miles, and carried a 6,000-pound bomb load.

In a fly-off with the Douglas DB-1 and the Martin Model 146, the Boeing 299 was the winner. In October 1935, tragedy struck when the prototype crashed after takeoff. The post-crash investigation revealed that a “gust lock,” which immobilizes the control surfaces, hadn’t been removed. The crash created the pre-flight checklist in use today. It also caused the aircraft to be removed from the bomber competition.

Due to a loophole, the Army ordered 13 YB-17s for testing; the rest is history. 

To say the B-17 was a formidable aircraft is an understatement. In its final configuration, the B-17G was equipped with 13 .50-caliber machine guns, armor plating for the crew, and self-sealing fuel tanks. After shooting down a B-17 in 1942, the Luftwaffe had a chance to examine one close-up.

B-24 Liberator “Fightin Sam” nose section

“It unites every possible advantage in one bomber: firstly, heavy armor; secondly, enormous altitude; thirdly, colossal defensive armament; and fourthly, great speed.”

 ~ Luftwaffe Colonel Adolf Galland, 104 Aerial Victories

THE ORIGINAL CITY OF SAVANNAH

The original City of Savannah, tail number 43-39049, was funded by residents of Chatham County, who raised $500,000 to produce the bomber along with the crew training costs. It came off the assembly line in 1944 and was given the name during its christening ceremony at Hunter Field. 

While it was at Hunter Field, it was matched up with its pilot Lt. Ralph Kittle and crew. It began its journey to England on December 4, 1944, and flew to Grenier, New Hampshire. On December 6, it flew to Goose Bay, Canada, and then to Iceland, where the aircraft developed a severe mechanical issue. Kittle and crew caught a hop to England, but the City of Savannah arrived several weeks after repairs. 

The ball turret consisted of two Browning .50-caliber machine guns each fed by a 500-round ammunition box and chute.

Kittle and his crew would never see the aircraft again.

The Boeing B-17G “Flying Fortress” aircraft, tail number 44-83814, has an interesting history. The plane rolled off the Douglas Corporation assembly line in Long Beach, California, and was accepted for service on June 20, 1945. The aircraft was flown to Syracuse, New York, and placed in short-term storage. On Oct 12, 1945, it was declared excess, flown to a disposal lot in Altus, Oklahoma, and remained there until 1947.

The U.S. Government started to sell surplus aircraft to civilians, provided the aircraft were used as a war memorial. Aircraft 814 was purchased for $350 by two North Dakota veterans and placed in front of public school number 3 in Hazen, North Dakota. 

Four years later, the school district either ignored the fine print that the aircraft couldn’t be resold or felt that they were the owners of the plane, and, in 1951, the aircraft was sold to California – Atlantic Airways of St. Petersburg, Florida. In 1953, after a couple of years of use, it was sold at a nice profit to Kenting Aviation in Canada for aerial survey work.

In 1971, Black Hills Aviation purchased it for use as a firefighter/water bomber, and in 1981, the owner traded it to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) for two surplus U.S. Navy aircraft. 

The aircraft was taken to Davis-Monthan AFB, stripped of its civilian finish, and tail number 44-83814 was re-applied. The plane was then stored/displayed at the Pima Air Museum until the NASM found storage space. In 1984, it made its final flight to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum annex and was stored at Dulles Airport.

In January 2009, it was acquired by the Mighty Eighth Museum from the NASM on the conditions that the museum document its educational mission, the museum signed a waiver that the aircraft would never fly again, the museum had to pay the cost of transportation, and if the museum ever closed, the ownership would revert to the Smithsonian.

THE RESTORATION BEGINS

Now that the museum had a B-17, the monumental hunt was on for all the parts needed to complete the aircraft, and it was legendary. The aircraft was used as a cargo aircraft and firefighter/water bomber throughout the years, so many parts were removed, as the ball turret, tail guns, and bomb bay were unnecessary. 

The museum staff and volunteers began scrounging, fabricating, and horse-trading for replacement parts. Lady Luck played a role, also. 

The B-17 ball turret enamors many people. Responsible for protecting the belly of the aircraft from enemy fighters, the Mighty Eighth acquired a very special one. 

A2 jacket of POW Irving Baum Stalag Luft III.

The ball turret installed in the City of Savannah is the actual ball turret used in the movie Memphis Belle. The turret was removed from one of the aircraft used in the film so that close-ups of the ball turret gunner, actor Sean Astin, were easier to shoot. 

The turret had changed owners several times since the 1990 movie and had just been sold to the World War II Museum in New Orleans. The Mighty Eighth purchased the turret from the museum for the same price they paid.

When the museum received its B-17, it was missing the tail turret. Several years prior, while the aircraft was in the custody of the Smithsonian, the tail turret was removed for an exhibit honoring “Rosie the Riveter.” 

In the ’70s, a B-17 pulling fire bomber duty in Alaska crashed. After 40 years in the Alaskan tundra, the tail section with the turret was lifted out of the wreckage and taken to California. The museum acquired the assembly and used it as a template to construct a duplicate to close the hole at the end of the tail. As luck would have it, the aircraft museum at Grissom AFB, Indiana, had a complete B-17 tail turret that needed some corrosion work. 

A deal was made, and the turret from Grissom was disassembled, cleaned, treated for corrosion, reassembled, and returned. All the parts were photographed and measured during the process, allowing the technicians to duplicate them for the City of Savannah. Since receiving the B-17G in January 2009, a crew of volunteers spent six years and over 60,000 hours restoring the aircraft to its original configuration.

EXPLORING THE MUSEUM

Constructed in 2002, The chapel was built to reflect gothic-style English chapels of the 16th century, like those near the Eighth Air Force bases.

The Chapel features stained glass windows highlighting some of the bomb groups assigned to the Eighth Air Force.

303rd Bomb Group “Might in Flight”

The Memorial Garden pays tribute to Eighth Air Force members who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II and later wars. Anchored by the reflecting pool, the garden hosts thousands of plaques, monuments, and memorials of bomber crews as a lasting tribute by family members to their loved ones.

On Memorial Day, the garden is filled with 26,000 48 Star flags in memory of the airmen killed in action over the skies of Europe.

Insignia cut from the tail of a Me-109 shot down by English spitfire.

The museum has something for everyone: the chance to see an actual B-17 up close; exhibits documenting Eighth Air Force bombing missions, including the ball-bearing factories of Schweinfurt and a diorama of the Romanian oil fields of Ploesti; the role of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) who ferried aircraft from the United States to overseas bases; and, of course, the appreciation of the young men of the Eighth who answered the call of duty and achieved air supremacy in the skies over occupied Europe.

The museum continually adds exhibits, and an expansion is in the works. If you know anyone with a B-24 Liberator to donate, give the museum a call. 

Address:

National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force
175 Bourne Ave
Pooler, GA 31322
(912) 748-8888

HOURS:

Monday: Closed
Tuesday through Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday: Noon to 5 p.m.
Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day

ADMISSION:

  • Adults: $12
  • Seniors 60+ $11
  • College Student $11
  • Retired Military $11
  • Children 6-12 $8
  • Active Duty Military $8
  • Children 6-12 $7
  • Children Under 6 Free
  • WWII Veterans Free

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3 Comments

  • Patrick Carroll says:

    Great museum. Oddly enough, they had an F-4 and a MiG-17 out front last time I visited.

  • Quartermaster says:

    Well worth the trip. I was there when my 25 yo granddaughter was a newborn, and place was quite nice. I’m sure there are some massive improvements since then.

  • Old Patriot says:

    Hq 8th Air Force is currently at Barksdale AFB, LA. They also have a great museum (Barksdale Global Power Museum) featuring previous 8th Air Force aircraft, and modern ones through the B-1 (including an SR-71). There’s also a British Vulcan bomber and a Mig-21. It’s on an active military base, so not the easiest place to visit.

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  • Great museum. Oddly enough, they had an F-4 and a MiG-17 out front last time I visited.

  • Well worth the trip. I was there when my 25 yo granddaughter was a newborn, and place was quite nice. I'm sure there are some massive improvements since then.

  • Hq 8th Air Force is currently at Barksdale AFB, LA. They also have a great museum (Barksdale Global Power Museum) featuring previous 8th Air Force aircraft, and modern ones through the B-1 (including an SR-71). There's also a British Vulcan bomber and a Mig-21. It's on an active military base, so not the easiest place to visit.

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