For those who may not know, the National Museum of the United States Air Force is located in Dayton, Ohio. It is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday, everyday except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. I discovered its’ existence at my grandfather’s memorial after he passed away in 2006. For the full story on this, see my very first entry.
I was able to visit the first time for less than 24 hours on August 23, 2006, due in large part to my commitment to Division 1 soccer at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. However, I was very thankful for that short amount of time; I was able to get an up close look at a P-47, the artwork, the cockpit, and the general exhibit. I was able to get a better view of my grandfather, his bravery, and his talents as a pilot. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I understand its significance now. I also didn’t appreciate the access we were given; since it was a new exhibit, and we were family, we were allowed to get closer than others.
And it was nice and warm since it was summer.
I didn’t get that treatment the second time, from the museum or the weather.
The second time was March 3, 2016. I had been in contact with the Museum Curator, Jeff Duford, and Archivist, Brett Stolle, for over a month. I had wanted to visit on the 10 year anniversary of my grandfather’s passing, February 17, but priorities prevented that. Then, I had wanted to go the following week, but commitments prevented that. So the first week of March it was, and although it had been about 65º F two days prior, the weather was a frigid 25º F when I landed in Dayton on the 2nd of March. It was snowing by the 3rd.
After landing around 10:30 a.m. local time and picking up my rental car, I made my way to my hotel (Drury Inn and Suites, which I highly recommend!) to unwind and unpack. I called my mom to tell her I had arrived safely and she asked when I was going to the museum. “Not until tomorrow,” I said. “You don’t want to go there today?” she then asked. “Not really, I’m kind of tired. I am going to take a nap then do some homework and then write a blog post,” I told her, feeling confident I knew what I was doing. “What if you don’t have time to see the museum tomorrow?” she pressured. In the back of my mind, I knew she was right. “No, I’ll have time,” I lied. “Are you sure?” she followed up. “Yes, Mom, I’m sure, but thanks for worrying,” I sighed. A few more niceties, I love yous, and a goodbye later, I was putting my shoes back on and heading out the door. I don’t hate it when my mother is right, but it can get very exhausting.
The directions were simple enough to follow from my phone. The Museum is located just outside of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. It took less than 20 minutes to get there from my hotel, and I arrived around 2 p.m. There were planes sitting out on the lawn, as well as a control tower and Nissen huts. The museum itself is, in layman’s terms, massive. They are currently in the process of finishing construction on a 4th building and its’ 4 exhibits, which will open in June. For now, they have 6 galleries in 3 1/2 buildings (not to mention the two parks on the outside). However, I focused my attention on only one gallery; the WWII gallery.
I made a beeline for my grandfather’s plane after walking through security, fighting back tears I didn’t even know I needed to shed (still can’t account for the emotional moment). At the exhibit, I had to stand behind the barrier like everyone else and take pictures and video from afar. It made me kick myself for not being able to spend more time there the first time, but I did what I could with the time I had. For 3 hours, I traipsed around the gallery, taking photos and video of the his P-47, the bombers they would have escorted, and the other planes that would have filled the sky on D-day. I read as much of the information sheets as possible, learning about what was happening in the other fighter groups, tactical air commands, and air force units in the European Theater.
At 5 p.m., they announced the museum was closing. The volunteers who had been walking around the exhibits started calling out to us stragglers. I joked with an older gentleman volunteer as I made my way to the exit (I wasn’t the strangest museum visitor he had seen walking around for three hours taking pictures, so yay!), and as I made my way down the sidewalk towards the parking lot, a familiar song began playing over the intercom. “Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun,” came the lyrics. I almost cried again. I remembered my grandfather playing this on his computer when we would come visit. When I was still young (and light), he bounced me along on his knees to it. I hadn’t heard it for over a decade, but it came right back to me; the song of the U.S. Air Force.
I arrived back at the museum the next morning at 8:50 a.m., 10 minutes before I was supposed to meet Brett Stolle in the main entrance of the museum. I sat there, not daring to turn the car off for losing the heater, pondering what this experience would be like. It would be my first official visit to an archive, and although I had taken college classes and knew the do’s and don’ts, I was still nervous I would mess something up. This was the main reason I came to Dayton, I fretted, so I better not screw it up. How I could screw anything up, beyond destroying the records and the building itself, I still don’t know, but I was nervous nonetheless.
I hadn’t known that there was even an archive associated with this museum until visiting their website (see the link above). And while the museum sits just outside of the gates, the archives is located on the base itself; I didn’t realize this until after I met Mr. Stolle, but I’ll get to that. So, as the clock turned to 9 a.m. and I braced myself for the cold and wind, I heard the Song come on over the intercom again, this time without the lyrics. Probably a good thing; I might have started crying again. After entering the lobby and going through the metal detector, I did a U-turn and introduced myself to Mr. Stolle. He shook my hand, we exchanged a few pleasantries and then back outside we went. I followed him to his car and got in the passenger seat. As I buckled in and tucked my bag and purse under my legs, he told me I needed to get out my I.D. for the security gate.
So up until this moment, I had expected most of this. For those who have never visited an archive of any kind, making an appointment before visiting one is preferred, if not required, especially by larger archives. This allows the archivist to locate the records you are wanting to see and have them ready for you when you visit. This shortens the wait time and increases the research time for the user. This also may be required because some records are stored off-site, meaning they have to be transported to the reading room for the user to look through.
But for the archives in Dayton, it means a little bit more. Security clearance did not seem absolutely necessary for the part of the base I entered into (the guards hardly glanced at me), but the archivist was responsible for me while I was on base, so he needed to know I was coming. I had been in contact with Mr. Stolle for about a month when we finally pinned down a date for my visit. I don’t think they all take that long (it was mostly on my end), but it was necessary for this archive.
He answered all of my inane questions from the museum to the base, then started telling me more about the base and its history. The building he took me to housed the archive, actually called the Research Division of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Key cards were required to get into both the building and the reading room, double the insurance for the security of the records.
After signing me in on a board on the wall (for all who entered to see) and giving me a visitors badge, he walked me through the mostly darkened building. There were hardly any people there, a mixture of the early hour and the weather, I presumed, but there was still plenty to see. He pointed out the work stations to our left; wood and metal cutting, printing, and painting. They did everything in-house, he explained, to cut down on overall costs. Having seen what they had in only one gallery in one building, I knew that was an important thing for their work.
As we hung a right past the work stations, the outlines of planes stretched through the darkness to the back wall on our left. In the foreground the light exposed several rows of cabinets. All of this was enclosed within an 8-ft fence. The planes were obvious enough; donations made that were most likely headed to the museum for future exhibits. The cabinets, Brett explained, housed other donated objects such as goggles, helmets, and weapons, that may also make it into the exhibits someday, but for now were used for reference for the research division. After about 30 paces down this corridor, the wall on the right opened into a space full of, for lack of a better word, stuff. There was no fence around these things (I didn’t ask why) but they weren’t in pristine condition, giving rise to the idea that they might still be processing what was located in that area (and it was in need of some preservation work).
After about another 30 paces, we hung a left, walking the outside of the fenced-in area until the door to the reading room appeared on the right. A swipe of his card and we were through the door. He proceeded to his desk just inside the main reading room, and I just stood there looking lost. He showed me the records I had requested, those pertaining to my grandfather, all of which had apparently come from my grandmother. Some of the things I recognized, others I did not. I dug into the material (figuratively, not literally; be gentle when handling records, folks) and began the nearly 6 hours I spent in that room by just going through the folders to familiarize myself with it. I highly recommend this approach which allows you to get a cursory understanding of what is available; when taking photos, notes, and copies, you can easily lose track of what you have and have not gone through. Also, try to keep the records in the order you found them. It isn’t always a necessity, but it is a courtesy.
After about an hour, I got to meet Jeff Duford, the curator I had been emailing for close to 2 months. He had personally worked on my grandfathers’ exhibit, something he told me he will always cherish (he loved my grandfather’s story and thinks my family is a delight). He said he would be back later and we could talk more in depth, so I continued on my search and he went about his work.
Around 1 p.m. I had to take a bathroom break. I felt like a kid in school again, having to tell Brett who then had to take me to the restroom. He also had to wait for me outside the bathroom because you needed a key card to get back in the reading room. I’m not going to complain; security measures are put in place for a reason, and it is great to know they have that security for those records.
Around 1:30 p.m., I was ready for Mr. Duford. He sat across from me and we chatted about his talking with my family after my grandfather passed away. Most of my questions revolved around planes, mainly, the markings on them, how many they had, and why they chose my grandfather for this P-47. Mainly, he told me, it was because of a book by Lt. Col. John J. Zentner called The Art of Wing Leadership and Aircrew Morale in Combat. I laughed, saying that was the book that encouraged me to do this project. He showed me two more books (both of which I later discovered we had in our own house) on the Ninth Air Force and the 362nd Fighter Group, and we talked until I had run out of questions.
So just before 3 p.m., I thanked Mr. Duford for his time and informed Mr. Stolle I was done with the records. I thanked him as he led me out of the reading room door, and I waved goodbye to the records on the table; the sentimentality had hit me, and I was sad to leave them. We headed back down the still-darkened corridors (the snow had picked up so a lot of people had just called in) and back to the sign-in board. He wiped off my name and took my badge, remarking on how much thicker the snowflakes were getting. Back to his car, then back to the checkpoint, then back to the museum. He dropped me off at my rental car because I was mentally drained from the time in the reading room and just wanted to get to the airport. I thanked him a second time, telling him I hope to see him again soon, if nothing else to see the rest of the museum and any new information he might have on my grandpa or the 362nd Fighter Group.
I sat in my car, trying to warm both it and me up. I called my mother, telling her I was about to head to the airport. “You aren’t going into the museum, again?” she asked. “No,” I replied, “I’m too tired. And I’m pretty sure I got everything I need.” It was quiet for about 5 seconds and then I heard her say, “Are you sure?” In the back of my mind, I knew she was right. This was all the time I had to spend here before my graduate project was due. If I missed anything, I wouldn’t be able to get another shot. “Yes, Mom, I’m sure,” I lied. She wished me a great flight, probably hearing the eye roll I gave her through the phone.
The next minute was spent psyching myself up for heading back out in the cold and snow (it is a good 2 minute walk to the entrance from the parking lot) and looking for new information in a museum I had already convinced myself I had found everything I needed in. I’m glad I did it (and yes, I told my mom thank you for encouraging me). I got extra shots of information posted on the walls, planes my grandfather would have flown in the Pacific Theater, and the German artillery pieces they had within the exhibit. It would help me tell the story of both my grandfather and the 362nd.
So, around 4:15 p.m. I decided I was done. I stopped in the gift shop on the way out, purchasing a travel mug for my parents, a shot glass for my collection, and a commemorative spoon to continue the collection my grandparents had started (I currently have theirs on a wall in my room). Back out into the cold and thickening snow, back into my chilly-again rental, and back to the airport I had arrived at 30 hours earlier.
It was still a short trip, but all-in-all a very successful one, for both me and my project.