Make It Personal

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Months ago I was invited to appear at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Georgia near Savannah to talk about my book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. My presentation took place the evening of May 16 before a wonderful and enthusiastic dinner crowd.

This particular museum is all about the experience of the men of the U.S. Eighth Air Force based in England who slugged it out with their German counterparts for three bloody years in the skies over northern Europe. I got uncomfortably close to this story writing Mission, and now understand how horrifying was their job and how scarred they returned in 1945. And make no mistake, Stewart was scarred like the rest of them. As much as any other group, including those who stormed the Normandy beaches, these men won World War II.

I came away from my experience at the museum unsettled. After my presentation there was a lively Q&A and the best set of questions I’ve been asked yet. One of these was, “In your experience, how can we get the 12-year-olds of today interested in this story?” It was a question I hadn’t prepared for and I made a joke at the moment, but then really got to thinking about it because this is the challenge of any facility that wants to remain vital after all the veterans have passed on and their stories have been set in marble. It’s the challenge of any museum anywhere, say a museum about Hollywood history, as learning styles change.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The Memorial Garden with its statues and tablets dedicated to individuals, air crews, squadrons, and bomb and fighter groups moved me to tears.

Before my flight back to Pittsburgh the following day, I took an hour to drift through the museum and its haunting Memorial Garden by myself with the attendee’s question firmly in my mind. I find the museum to be very well laid out and full of items that tell the story of the fliers and their planes, down to uniforms, radio sets, control panels, bombsights, machine guns—the whole nine yards. There’s even a room that was built around a complete B-17 Flying Fortress.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

History under glass. For WWII buffs, no problem. For school-age groups? Bring those items out from under the glass or create replicas and let the kids experience up close.

Groups of school children troop through daily—there were two large groups there while I wandered around, and a volunteer was talking to them about the whats and whys of the air war against Germany. The place is staffed by dedicated, articulate people volunteering their time to keep the history alive, and they want so badly to engage young people and let them in on this incredible story.

And I couldn’t help but think as a fly on the wall listening to the volunteer and watching the fidgety kids that the would-be educators are shoveling sand against the tide of time, and now here comes this latest generation for whom Hitler is some weird guy and yeah yeah yeah when can I get back to my texting? I worry that history under glass and docent lectures don’t work anymore, not with this and succeeding generations of ever shorter-attention-spanned generations. Maybe history under glass can be step 2, but heading into a difficult future, step 1 has to be to somehow, some way engage the imaginations of the 12 year olds who walk in the door expecting boredom and worse, torture.

In this particular case, the conclusion I came to in answer to the attendees question was that the kids have to walk a mile in the fliers’ boots. And I mean that literally. Ask for one of the students to come up for a demonstration. Get them to acknowledge that what they’re wearing now is the equivalent of the uniform shirt and pants of an Army flier—the first layer of a flying outfit. OK, now…

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Visitors examine the bust of Jimmy Stewart in the museum rotunda.

Have him or her struggle into a “blue bunny” heated flying suit. Do you know why it’s heated? Because it’s going to be 30 below when you’re at 20,000 feet, which is almost 4 miles up. Think about that…30 degrees below zero, 4 miles above the earth. And oh by the way there are open windows in the plane and the wind really gets to howling inside at 200 miles per hour.

Now strap on your parachute harness. “Wait, what’s this for?” Well when the Germans shoot your plane full of holes and it’s not going to fly anymore, you have to jump out of it. The parachute straps onto this harness.

Now here’s your Mae West. “My what?” If you land in water, you need something to help you float.

Don’t forget your oxygen mask. “What the…” At 4 miles up and 30 below, without oxygen you will pass out in about a minute and die a few minutes after that.

And here’s your sidearm. “Why do I need a gun if I’m in an airplane full of machine guns?” Because if you manage to hit the ground alive after you’ve jumped out of your airplane, there are people who will want to kill you, and you may need to defend yourself.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The B-17, roped off in the name of preservation. Instead of signs that read, PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH, maybe the approach should be, BY ALL MEANS, TOUCH!

You’ll need your escape kit. “What’s an escape kit?” It’s got a map, coins, medicine, fake travel documents, a translation card, and other things you’ll need while you are running for your life in enemy territory.

Here’s your flak jacket and steel pot helmet. “Jeez, so heavy!” Yes, you need sturdy armor to protect you a little from the flying bullets and shrapnel—but just a little.

And here’s your flying helmet with headset, and goggles. And your sheepskin boots and gauntlets because every inch of skin has to be covered to prevent frostbite. And, oh, let’s strap on your parachute.

And with every question comes an answer that makes this story personal for these kids.

Pretty soon your volunteer is unrecognizable under 40 pounds of stuff and having trouble even standing there. You say, OK, now you’re ready to climb into the airplane!

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The 1942 Jimmy Stewart short recruiting film Winning Your Wings plays nonstop on a monitor under the wing of the B-17. As related in Mission, Stewart initially refused to participate but then relented to create one of the most important tools for recruiting in the war.

What you’ve done is set the stage for life or death in German airspace. You’ve invested 20 minutes of the tour to make these kids think about the mortal danger of every flier from a personal perspective—fliers that weren’t much older than the school children themselves.

Pass around a .50 machine gun shell, which looks like a bullet on steroids and weighs a pound. Then show them a belt loaded with these shells and imagine a) how heavy and b) how devastating was that gun!

Pull a B-17 or B-24 fuselage out of mothballs or build a new one and outfit it, and let school groups roam around inside, from the nose to the cockpit to the waist and the turrets. Then rev up the noise and shake that fuselage until their teeth are rattling—and tell them this is what they’ll hear and feel for the next six or eight hours, which was the length of a mission. If, that is, they don’t get shot down first.

Create a simulation that lets them look through a bombsight over a target and maybe let them release some sort of bomb to see how they do as a bombardier. Or figure out a way to let them shoot a virtual-reality machine gun.

Maybe some of these ideas are already practice at the museum because I didn’t follow a student group from beginning to end.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The Chapel of the Fallen Eagles is a replica of the kind of English country church located near all the bomber and fighter bases. Behind it rest some veterans of the Eighth Air Force who chose to be buried at this focal point of their history.

I came away from my experience at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth with a deepened appreciation of what Jim Stewart and the other flyboys did and with admiration for the mission and staff of this wonderful facility. After spending two years with the young men of the Eighth as I was researching and writing their story for Mission, I needed no context for the museum and its goals. I already know what the boys went through and what they sacrificed. The challenge for any American-based WWII museum is that there’s no battlefield here, so World War II can’t be interpreted in the United States the way the Civil War can be at Gettysburg or Antietam. No, the volunteers show up every day fighting ever-increasing odds to keep the heartbeats going for men who fought in foreign lands more than 70 years ago. I salute this noble effort and strongly urge that these outstanding young fliers were humans and that the human experience will never change. Therefore, find ways to connect the youth of today with the youth of 1943 so that when your school-age visitors walk back out into the light of a Georgia afternoon, they appreciate these brave men so much that maybe they take an extra couple of minutes thinking about it…before they remember to reach for their cell phones.

And maybe, just maybe, a precious few will catch the history bug, and become the volunteers of tomorrow.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

I didn’t expect to see a memorial dedicated to Stewart–he’s in good company in the rotunda with statues of the founding generals of the Eighth Air Force.

11 comments

  1. Robert, Great post, very relevant. I’ll share this with Mid Atlantic Air Museum. Mark Chapin

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    1. Thanks Mark. Take air shows for example. That’s probably the best way for young people to want to learn more about WWII, seeing the warbirds growling and swooping overhead. Hearing the roar at takeoff and seeing the man interact with the machine to create magic. We have to somehow manage to bring the magic inside to what were designed as static displays. History must come to life.

  2. nice photos… thanks for sharing… and that B-17 is awesome… love WW2 history as I had two uncles who served in that war, one survived but only just barely (after Bataan death march)… thanks again!

  3. Thanks for sharing your visit – which should be required in schools – but that’s just me. Are there any veterans still living who could attend an event at the museum so that the youth could possibly talk to a human? I’ll never forget my first visit to the WWII Memorial in Wash. D.C. during which time a veteran was greeted with thunderous applause as he was rolled up to the memorial and picture taking with him ensued. I was deeply moved and shook his hand and said “thank you”, of course. The pool of veterans who could be there is probably so small, and may be confined to a wheelchair, but still it may help while they still remain.

    1. Speaking pragmatically, Christopher, if you’re going to require that schools visit WWII museums, then we damn well better make the experience an unexpected treat for them and not an exercise in torture. Given that the veterans are all 90+ and fewer and fewer are up to speaking appearances, I would postulate that meeting a WWII vet, where possible, would be step 3. The “old guy” has to be presented in context, so you need a setup of interactive experiences to make kids realize, “Gosh, this man lived through all that??” I don’t want to sugar-coat anything here. I believe we are close to losing the battle at these historic sites without dramatic rethinking of how history is portrayed and presented.

      1. True in fact that schools shouldn’t be required to send their students to museums, even if it’s the most worthy WW II one. I think your call for “dramatic re-thinking of how history is to be portrayed and presented” might best work at a special conference in the future, where more ideas could be considered. I was a museum curator (“accessionaire”) here in Ridgway, CO at the railroad museum back in 2002, so I’ve found my interest in preserving real as opposed to propaganda- serving history to be something of a calling. The fact that the living men and women who served in that horrible war are nearly gone, down to 4% with how many already to frail and weak to even consider travel, is a fact that may bolster this idea.

  4. You are 100% right about a more personal museum experience to wake a healthy understanding of History. However, to be absolutely honest, 12 years old are notoriously HARD to engage in anything other than theirs and their friends tastes and picks.

    1. Yes, Priscila, 12 year olds are tough, but I was that age once (and still am mentally) and I remember vividly some times when I was grabbed by history, sometimes quite unexpectedly. You won’t enthrall all the kids in the group, certainly, but I believe a great number of them can be riveted by this story.

  5. I did overlook in my comment above, that there were several groups of pre-teens with color coded tee shirts (in case one wandered off and got lost) and THEY were the ones giving the applause in mass. Clearly, the schools sponsored the visits and were appropriately chaperoned. I’m certain the WWII vet was moved with gratitude as well.The vets get a free flight plus free room and board for showing up to the memorial. I photographed the moment if you’d like to view what I saw, and what I”ll never forget.

  6. Fantastic piece. Less than 4% of the 16 million who served during WWII are still with us. Mr. Pike (above) is right that having a vet on hand to meet school kids is one way to share and preserve history, but I fear so many of these surviving vets are now in their 10th decade and face health issues that make it difficult to participate. Dear Clem Leone is an outlier, but I’m so grateful he still gets out there to tell his story and that he’s such a vital part your book, Mission.

    As I think about how to keep people engaged, particularly younger people, I’m reminded of my first trip to The Holocaust Memorial Museum years ago where each visitor was given an ID card of someone who lived in Europe during The Holocaust with details of their personal journey. I knew when I was given my ID that the odds that Elsa survived were slim. Still when we ended our tour and I learned she survived less than six months after being sent to a camp, I was deeply moved and after nearly 20 years I still remember her. Perhaps a similar ID could be issued at The Mighty Eighth. Visitors are assigned a serviceman, how and where he served, and at the end of their visit, the visitors learn what became of their pilot or navigator or gunner or mechanic. As you know, Robert, the stories of all of these men and women who served are so engaging that it begs for a more personal attachment and more importantly, someone to remember and honor the person and the service even if it’s only for a quiet minute or two at the end of a museum tour.

    So glad you had a wonderful evening there in Pooler. I love the photos. The Mighty Eighth looks like a beautiful museum.

    1. I love this idea, MGray. I wouldn’t have thought of it and maybe the museum wouldn’t have either. Clem Leone (a hero in Mission) turned 18 and soon thereafter that’s what the draft age was lowered to. Some of the guys I saw fidgeting on the tour the other day were about that, 16-18, so if they can’t connect to the boys going up as radio men and gunners in B-17s and B-24s, then history education is doomed. And handing out cards with real fliers on them would be a big help. And what about having a special interactive element for each specialty shown on the card. Say your guy is Clem Leone and Clem was a radio operator–all those with radio operator cards could go off for a briefing or play with a radio set. And that reveal at the end is fantastic. What became of Clem Leone: shot down Feb 24, 1944, spent nine months in a prison camp, and then survived a four-month death march across Europe.

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