The National Museum of World War II Aviation houses the largest collection of operational (yes, that means flying) World War II aircraft in the world.
That statement alone should get WWII and airplane buffs alike to storm the place. But it is currently small and unpretentious, and a bit hard to find. The Museum sits at the end of a block of warehouses, which in turn are at the end of a dead-end road near the Colorado Springs Airport and Peterson Air Force Base.
The museum is only open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and has docent-led tours at 10am, noon and 2pm.
This place is worth finding, and worth the time. We’ve been to most if not all of the World War II museums: the National World War II Museum in New Orleans; the Pacific War Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas; and, of course, the U.S.S. Arizona and the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor. All have their strengths, and, as expected, this one in Colorado Springs strength lies with its airplanes.
We had driven down from Denver to stay the night for the Barr Trail Mountain Race, and arrived at the museum almost an hour early for our 2pm docent-led tour. When they told us that the tours ran two hours long, I got excited and my wife restrained herself from slapping me. But our docent, named Phil, not only toured us around but told story after story that kept us interested, entertained and amused.
The current museum consists of three parts: a set of display cases with memorabilia, mainly from local World War II survivors and/or their families; a connected hanger and work area, which houses six or so planes with more display cases; and the adjacent hanger of WestPac Restorations, which has several planes that are either fully restored or are in the process of being restored.
The tour starts in a lecture room, where docent Phil shows a map of the European air theater, describing it as a 1,500 x 1,500 square mile area. He later shows a map of the Pacific air theater, where the same 1,500 x 1,500 square mile area would fit between Midway and Oahu – a small portion of the entire area of the Pacific that saw action.
The rows of display cases told the story of World War II. This was not the in-depth, blow-by-blow story that is shown at the Pacific War Museum, but a summary with stories of local servicemen and some excellent items. There is a signed first edition of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” by Pappy Boyington. There is also a Norden Bombsight.
In the case on Pearl Harbor, there is a picture of the U.S.S. Arizona dated December 10, 1941, with the caption “View from ahead, looking aft.”
There are also several personal stories. As we passed the display case describing Dolittle’s Raiders, Phil told us a story of a visitor to the museum who was obviously a World War II vet who would not identify himself until after the tour. It was Dick Cole, the co-pilot of Dolittle’s plane on the raid. Mr. Cole is one of four current surviving members of the raid.
As I mentioned at the very beginning, this museum houses the largest collection of operational World War II aircraft. There was a dead giveaway of this fact in this hanger and in the WestPac Restoration hanger – see the photo to the right. Every plane had an oil pan underneath it to catch leaking oil. Either the engines still leaked oil, or they were going for ultimate realism!
Many of these planes were recovered after being unceremoniously buried in places like Papau New Guinea at the end of the war. With fresh planes available, there was no value seen in keeping these planes, so bulldozers dug trenches and the planes were shoved in. The team at the museum built the business plan for recovery, raised the funds, recovered the aircraft and in most cases restored it to World War II-level operation (or better).
There are about six planes (or pieces of planes) in this hanger, several of the operational. This includes one trainer, the husk of one P-47D-2RE Thunderbolt (which docent Phil said would one day be restored to flying), and several others.
On the way out of this part of the tour, we went through an adjacent workroom and into a small restoration area. There, proudly displayed, was a piece of the U.S.S. Arizona. Docent Phil said that the museum curator had procured it on a trip to Oahu. The display had a map that showed what part of the Arizona the piece was from. All were encouraged to touch it, prompted by Phil’s disclosure that soon it would be in a case under a piece of glass. The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial is one of the most emotional places to visit, and touching a piece of the ship was surreal.
The last major part of the tour is reached by a walk across the tarmac to the hanger of WestPac Restoration. The hanger houses several planes being restored, operational planes (like Audrey’s favorite, the B-25), and several unique workrooms for restoring propellers and bending/curving metal for the plane’s housing.
The WestPac hanger has a propeller shop and a metal shop, the purpose of both being described as “since you can’t buy World War II props and curved metal off the shelves, we build them here.” There was a set of very warped propellers off to the side that had been recovered; they were to be put into a machine that would straighten them out, and then into another machine that would put just the right angle of twist on them for the planes they were destined for.
Among the restoration projects were two P-38s, one of which had been recovered from Papau New Guinea. You can see details of their restorations on the WestPac web site – the P-38 “white 33″ (as that was the insignia painted on its tail) and the P-38 Lightning.
Audrey’s favorite was the B-25, pictured below. According to the inscription near the tail, this plane had flown off the deck of five aircraft carriers. I’d say that’s the definition of “operational”.
My wife was looking at a picture in front of the B-25 that showed the plane and its owner, Bill Klaers, and said to me “That guy looks like the man in the picture.” Bill was roaming around the WestPac Restorations hanger on the day of our tour, as he probably does most days. We struck up a conversation with him (I believe he was trying to talk my wife into taking a job there) and learned quite a bit more about the museum from him. Many of the plane are taken out and flown quite frequently, including the B-25 (which had a starring role in the movie “Pearl Harbor”).
We didn’t realize it at the time, but Bill is also the co-chairman of the museum and is co-owner of WestPac Restorations.
As befitting its collection of operational vintage aircraft, the museum has big plans. They have quite a few more planes ready to be added to display as soon as they can work through some legalities. And, to house all this, they are planning a huge expansion, with a building that has a replica of an aircraft carrier deck, with plans to mount a plane from the ceiling like it has just taken off from said deck.
Details for the expansion plans can be seen here.
We will certainly be back to see their new facilities when ready.
Red Sun is a fictional World War II history that assumes different outcomes of several events in the Pacific Theater of World War II:
The book was written in 2001 by Richard Ziegler and Patrick M. Patterson, two instructors from the Honolulu Community College, and uses the above assumptions, combined with knowledge of Japanese and U.S. actions in other theaters to tell a compelling story. Through three different types of dialog (called Vistas, Vignettes and Voices), the story unfolds through fictional history lessons, personal accounts and reflections.
After having recently read Retribution, Max Hasting’s excellent account of the end of World War II in the Pacific, the references to other battles, to the treatments by the Japanese of their prisoners and the attitudes of the Japanese themselves all ring true in Red Sun. It is a very plausible what-if alternate history, complete with a set of notes at the end about what events were altered or assumed altered for the story. (more…)
There are three main buildings housing separate exhibits:
- the George H.W. Bush Gallery, which has a chronological exhibit of the war in the Pacific;
- the Pacific Combat Zone, which has the large pieces, including planes, PT boats and artillery;
- the Admiral Nimitz Museum, housing a history of the Nimitz Hotel and a short history of Admiral Nimitz.
There are also other areas, including the Plaza of the Presidents (featuring the ten Presidents who served in WWII), the Memorial Courtyard and the Japanese Garden of Peace. The staff recommends a day and a half to see everything; we (my son, my step-father who is a WWII Vet (and thus got in free!) and I) spent most of a full day. Details below and more photos below.
Most histories of World War II focus on North Africa, then the Sicily
and Italy invasions by the Allies. But after the fall of Rome a few days before D-Day, they focus on the Normandy invasions and the push through France to Germany. There was a lot of Italy left, and the Allies forces there held down several German armies, keeping them away from the Russian and D-Day fronts.
James Holland’s 539 page history of the war in Italy from 1944-1945, Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War 1944-1945, documents not only the Allies and German armies and their battles, but the struggles of the Italian citizens, partisans, remaining fascist government and reforming Italian armies.
Italy at the time faced civil war, two Armies (first the retreating Germans, then the advancing Allies) consuming all the food and resources leaving little for the citizens, a fragmented leadership with mixed messages, and the pure devastation of war (where it sometimes seems only Rome and Florence were spared). It is truly amazing the country has survived.
This in-depth history is presented in four sections: (more…)
In the summer of 2005, I was about to venture into my third
small start-up company, wrapping up the last items with my previous employer. As luck would have it, my previous employer had offices in Europe, in Milan, Munich and London. We were lucky enough to wrap in a non-business trip to Greece, including the island of Paxos around my visiting the European customers and offices.
I was hiking around that island one day, being pursued by thoughts of start-up company financing, when I came across a large villa, facing out across the Adriatic Sea towards Italy. Wouldn’t it be great, I mused, if there were a nice angel investor in that villa who would like to invest in this next venture?
What if he were an Italian drug smuggler?
That was the genesis for my new novel, Software by the Kilo.
But it wasn’t until last November, several years after that first trip, that the novel was finished, with a World War II back story that tied the original start-up plus Italian drug smuggler story line together.
It is no coincidence that the book is released on December 2, the anniversary of “Little Pearl Harbor”, the bombing of Bari, Italy in 1943, which ends up as a pivotal setting in the novel.
Of course I had to add in that one of the Italian henchmen loves Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, and that led to the body count game…
I never thought it would be more than three years between novels; obviously Stephen King I’m not, in more ways than just output. But I’ve enjoyed thoroughly the writing process, getting the pieces of the story to fall into place, bouncing ideas off of friends and fellow writers. The voices in my head never shut up, so my therapy to keep what little sanity I have left is to keep putting them down on paper.
The book is available at your local independent book stores like The Twig in San Antonio (now in the Pearl Brewery!), Books Inc. in California, BookPeople in Austin, Murder by the Book in Houston, Katy Budget Books in Katy Texas (if they don’t have it, stomp your feet and ask them to order it, please), at Amazon (.com and overseas), Barnes and Noble, and other outlets.
If you have any questions or feedback before, during or after, please let me know. More info on the novel is here.
I’ve been doing research for my next novel, Software by the Kilo and have always had a strong interest in World War II. Part of the novel takes place in Italy in World War II, one scene in particular during the bombing of Bari, Italy. Few people are aware of this bombing, which at the time was referred to as “Little Pearl Harbor”. As with Pearl Harbor, the Allies were caught completely unawares, this time because they were certain their airforce owned the skies over Italy. There wasn’t a single German bomber shot down, and the pickings were easy because the Allies had lights on in the harbor to speed the unloading by working at night.
There was mustard gas on one of the US Merchant Marine ships, the John Harvey which was destroyed in the bombing. The gas was being transported to Europe to be kept if needed for retaliation in the event Hitler used chemical weapons. This fact was covered up by both the US and British governments for a while, and it contributed to the deaths of many civilians and servicemen.
The table below compares Pearl Harbor with the bombing at Bari. (more…)
Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy (from the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 to the fall of Rome just before D-Day, June 1944) (review of Advanced Reader Copy)
Another triumphant book from the Pulitzer prize winning author
The Day of Battle is an excellent follow-up to An Army At Dawn, covering the often overlooked, extremely bloody and costly campaign in Italy. Again Mr. Atkinson uses a variety of sources to turn history into a smooth flowing story, including viewpoints from generals and soldiers alike.
Several topics stand out in Mr. Atkinson’s writing: (more…)
World War II has always held a fascination for me: the global scale, the impact on world politics and powers of today, the coming of Age of the United States as a super power, the thoughts of what could have been had certain decisions or battles gone one way or the other (see Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or many of the other alternative history novels to get your imagination going). Over the years, I have read many books, including the great John Keegan’s, Cornelius Ryan’s and a 25 volume Encyclopedia of WWII that my mom got me for Christmas as a kid (no, I am not kidding).
I received The Day of Battle (the 2nd in Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy) as an ARC at BEA, but wanted to read the series in order.
I am very glad that I did. Operation TORCH, the battles of Kasserine, Sidi Bou Zid, the taking of Bizerte and Tunis are told as stories from the perspectives of leaders and soldiers, based on meticulous research detailed in over 100 pages of notes. An Army At Dawn is a great representation of the grisly and personal nature of war, a fitting history of the men and women who fought in WWII. (more…)