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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.