Posted in Historical Sites, History, Research, WWII

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.

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Posted in Historical Sites, History, Research, WWII

Nashville and Middle Tennessee During the War Years

I grew up in Middle Tennessee and heard stories about the Second World War all my life. I thought I knew a lot about what went on the area. I have been using places in Tennessee as settings in my books or as background for my characters. To ensure that I was accurate and to add depth to the novels,  I researched numerous aspects – from the military presence to industrial plants to medical facilities. Here are a few things I learned, some of which I had not known before I started my research.

Historically Nashville wasn’t as industrial as Memphis or Chattanooga so it’s not often though of in terms of World War II  defense industries. Yet Nashville did produce war materials. The AVCO plant has produced aviation equipment for years. In my research I learned that the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation constructed the Nashville Plant to produce aircraft for the war. The Vultee A-31 Vengeance dive bomber and the P-38 Lightning fighters were the main output. And a third of the employees were women. Another example of how women filled critical roles in industry while the men were in uniform.

This woman is working inside a wheel well, at Vultee-Nashville. She is working on a "Vengeance" diver bomber. From the Library of Congress WWII Color Photograph collection.Photographer: Alfred T. Palmer
This woman is working inside a wheel well, at Vultee-Nashville. She is working on a “Vengeance” diver bomber.
From the Library of Congress WWII Color Photograph collection.Photographer: Alfred T. Palmer

Other Nashville industries were involved in production of war materials. Nashville Bridge Company built minesweepers for the Navy. Dupont supplied synthetic fibers for parachutes; General Shoe made combat boots and Werthan Bag manufactured sandbags.

South of Nashville, in the Columbia area, Monsanto Chemical Company produced phosphorous and Union Carbide produced whetlerite charcoal for gas masks and amorphous carbon electrodes for steel production.

Although I knew about military bases in Middle Tennessee, I never knew much about Camp Forrest or what an important role it played during the war. Situated near Tullahoma, the Army expanded the Tennessee National Guard’s training center in 1940 when the National Guard units were federalized.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor Camp Forrest became home to the Eighth and Eightieth Infantry Divisions as well as a training and induction center for men entering the Army. Numerous infantry, artillery, engineering and signal corps units trained at Camp Forrest.

Ethnic German and Italians, as well as Japanese civilians, were interred at the beginning of the war. In 1942 800 civilians were interred at Camp Forrest. In 1943 German prisoners of war arrived. Approximately 24,000 prisoners were held there during the war and as many as 68,000 were processed through the camp before internment at other facilities. With wounded POW’s in need of medical care, Camp Forrest was chosen for one of three POW Hospitals across the country.

Second Army Tennessee Maneuvers. The Layout. Company F, 347th Inf Reg., 87th Inf. Division, stands by for inspection by the Commanding General, Major General Percy Clarkson. (8 May 43) Signal Corps Photo: 164-007-43-989 (Sgt. J. A. Grant)
Second Army Tennessee Maneuvers. The Layout. Company F, 347th Inf Reg., 87th Inf. Division, stands by for inspection by the Commanding General, Major General Percy Clarkson. (8 May 43) Signal Corps Photo: 164-007-43-989 (Sgt. J. A. Grant)

Since the terrain of Middle Tennessee closely resembled that of Europe, the area became the site of what were known as Tennessee Maneuvers. Camp Forrest provided logistical support for these simulated combat exercises. Spread over twenty counties, the headquarters for the maneuvers was at Cumberland College in Lebanon. Between 1942 and 1944 hundreds of thousands of troops honed their combat skills in Tennessee – including General Patton’s 2nd Armor “Hell on Wheels” and the 2nd Rangers famous for their assault on Pont-du-Hoc on D-Day. I found a book by Woody McMillin “In the Presence of Soldiers” about the Tennessee maneuvers. It looks like it would be an interesting read. Click here for a good article about the maneuvers and the book.

After the war the Army surplussed Camp Forrest. The Air Force created the new Air Engineering Development Center, later renamed Arnold Engineering Development Center for Air Force General “Hap” Arnold, on the site. Since the war this facility has become the most advanced and largest complex of flight simulation test facilities in the world.

Another WWII military site in Middle Tennessee was Smyrna Army Airfield. Designated a specialized four-engine (heavy bomber) pilot training airfield, cadets practiced flying both B-17’s and B-24’s while stationed in Smyrna. After the war, the Air Force took over the site and renamed it Sewart Air Force Base for Tennessean Allan J. Sewart Jr. who died in a bombing mission over the Solomon Islands in 1942.

Berry Field, better known today as Nashville International Airport, became an Army Airfield prior to WWII with the 105th Observation Squadron. Later the B-25 Mitchell, a medium bomber, flew out of Berry Field. The Berry Field Air National Guard Base still occupies the site.

The best known military base in Middle Tennessee is Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles.  Camp Campbell was established in 1941 on land that straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky line near Clarksville, Tn. and Hopkinsville, Ky. During WWII this newly established base trained the 12th, 14th and 20th Armored Divisions and the 26th Infantry Division. And on a personal note, the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion and their sister units trained at Camp Campbell. My father-in-law was in the 276th AFA and during his training at Camp Campbell he met and married my mother-in-law.

Camp Campbell also housed German prisoners during World War II. Many of these men were utilized by farmers in the area to alleviate the labor shortage. For more information about German POW’s in Kentucky, read “German Jackboots in Kentucky Bluegrass.”

I also researched the medical facilities in Middle Tennessee related to the war effort. Thayer General Hospital in Nashville was one of the Army’s General Hospitals established across the country to treat wounded military personnel. Hospitals in the “Zone of the Interior” were named while those that served overseas were given numerical designations.  After the war the Veterans Administration took over the facility.

Dr. Oliver Carmichael, President of Vanderbilt University, was actively involved in establishing the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps which trained nurses across the country to alleviate the nationwide shortage of nurses. Other Nashville hospitals participating in the Cadet Nurse training program were Meharry Medical, Nashville General, Protestant and St. Thomas Hospitals.

Men and women from Middle Tennessee who were not in the military during the Second World War worked to win the war, too. Farmers stayed behind to raise the much-needed food. Women went to work in various capacities to fill the vacancies the men left behind. Men who for various reasons were unable to serve in the military worked on the homefront. Production ramped up. Belts were tightened. Everyone contributed in some way. Had they not, the Allies might not have defeated the Germans and the Japanese and our world would be very different today.

 

 

Posted in History, Research, WWII

Behind the Barbed Wire – American Airmen POW’s

When many of us think of American airmen held as prisoners by the Germans during World War II, we see images from the movie “The Great Escape” or the TV comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes.” Unfortunately, the truth about their imprisonment was no adventure and certainly no comedy. The real stories, as told by the men who lived through the experience, are fascinating. Their survival nothing short of miraculous.

American bomber crews and fighter pilots flew thousands of missions over German occupied Europe from 1942 to 1945. Many were shot down and most of the survivors became prisoners of war.

Just imagine – Airmen in a bomber raid flew at 20,000 feet or higher, endured sub-zero conditions in un-pressurized planes, survived terrifying fighter attacks and the helplessness of flying through flack to get to their targets. Youth, optimism and sheer determination kept them going. When their plane sustained damage, the decision to bail out came as a shock to many. Everyone knew it was possible, something they’d been briefed on before every flight, yet these brave, young men didn’t believe it would ever happen to them.

Some of them jumped into a sky filled with airplanes, bullets flying, debris from exploding planes, and artillery shells(flack)  exploding around them. Others chose between a crash landing or a parachute ride. When they floated to the ground in hostile territory, they landed in fields, in trees, in water, or in the very towns they had been bombing. Sometimes angry civilians greeted them, ready to kill them on the spot if the German military did not intervene.

The crews became separated once they bailed out and many did not see fellow crew members or know what happened to them until the war was over. If a downed airman landed in an occupied country, such as France, Holland, Belgium, Poland, or even Italy, local partisans or resistance fighters sometimes hid them and helped them evade capture. But with or without help, the Germans captured most of the downed airmen.

Until a prisoner was reported to the International Red Cross, he remained vulnerable to the whims of his captors. Once in the hands of the German military, downed airmen were transported to a Stalag Duft or interrogation center. Intelligence officers attempted to glean information from prisoners by keeping them in solitary cells and questioning them for hours at a time.

In German-held territory the different branches of the military ran POW camps. So, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), the German Navy, and the Wehrmacht (German Army), operated separate camps. They generally complied with the requirements of the Geneva Convention for treatment of prisoners of war. The food was the main complaint. If it hadn’t been for the Red Cross packages shipped in through Switzerland, many prisoners would have starved.

Probably the most famous German POW camp was Stalag Luft III. At this camp near what is now Sagan, Poland, British and American airmen staged the most daring escape attempt of the war. Known as “The Great Escape,” the popular 1963 movie and many books recount the story. Today there are several websites dedicated to Stalag Luft III and the Great Escape. Some websites have posted interviews with former POW’s or personal accounts written by former POW’s. These websites are a tribute to the prisoners, those who survived and those who didn’t.

An often forgotten portion of the story of Stalag Luft III is the evacuation of the camp in January 1945 to prevent the Russians from taking it. As a blizzard approached, orders came to assemble and be ready to march. The men took what they could carry and wore whatever clothes they had. Over ten thousand prisoners and their German guards trudged in the freezing cold along snow-covered roads through the night and for days to come with no idea where they were going. Sub-zero temperatures, inadequate winter clothing and boots, and lack of food took their toll. Along the way the prisoners were allowed to rest in various shelters – churches, barns, a jail building and a tile factory. Finally reaching a marshalling yard, the Germans packed the prisoners into boxcars and transported them to overcrowded POW camps in Nuremberg and Moosburg, Germany. Many prisoners did not survive the horrific journey.

The Germans moved prisoners from Stalag Luft III and other POW camps to consolidate them in the face of Allied advances and in hopes of using them as bargaining chips in surrender negotiations. But negotiations never took place and Allied forces continued their advance. In late April, 1945, the camps were finally liberated by American troops.

Read more about the POW camps and the experiences of the prisoners on these websites:

http://www.b24.net/pow/stalag3.htm

http://www.merkki.com/

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/berga/beyond/system.html

http://www.303rdbga.com/pow-camps.html#dulagluft

http://www.loc.gov/vets/stories/pow-germany.html