The Museum of the United States Air Force, Memphis Belle, and the Evolution of Air Intelligence

Recently I’ve started doing something that I’ve wanted to do for years: I’ve become a volunteer at the Museum of the United States Air Force, located in Dayton, Ohio.* Once or twice per month, I get to spend several hours within this fine institution, walking among the legacies of the men and women who created modern air power. It’s an incredible experience, and if you haven’t visited, you need to make time to do so. The museum is truly a national treasure, comparable to the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

My time spent within the museum has spurred a number of article ideas and projects that I intend to pursue. But before I get into one of them, I’m going to highlight an exciting upcoming event: on 17 May 2018, the museum will unveil the Memphis Belle to the public, the storied B-17 Flying Fortress that became the first U.S. heavy bomber to complete 25 bombing runs over Europe.  The date selected for this is quite purposeful: it will mark the 75th anniversary of the final mission flown by the crew, on 17 May 1943. After months of careful restoration, the Memphis Belle will be presented amid a celebration from the 17th to the 19th.  Check out the official web page, and the flyer below:

http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Upcoming/Boeing-B-17F-Memphis-Belle-Exhibit-Opening-May-17-2018/

Memphis Belle Flyer

Apart from this, I’ve started to outline a blog series on airborne (and eventually space-borne) intelligence capabilities. The series is directly inspired by my time in the museum. The collections on display are divided into four massive hangars: Early Years/World War I, Southeast Asia/Korea, Cold War, and the newest, Space/Experimental/Presidential aircraft.  With so much history within its walls, there are countless stories and themes one can explore. My interest in military intelligence has led me to start examining the displays that speak to the evolution of air intelligence capabilities. While there are many intelligence-specific exhibits, I hope to present a cohesive narrative of the milestones that have led to the breathtaking capabilities the US Air Force possesses today, starting with the humble balloon.

 

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US Army aeronaut mockup at Museum of the US Air Force.

More to come.

WEL

*This is a good time to emphasize that, although I am fortunate to volunteer at the Museum of the USAF, I do not represent them. Everything posted to this blog is my opinion and analysis, and in no way represents the Museum.

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75th Anniversary of the Doolittle Tokyo Raid

In early morning on April 18, 1942, a small Japanese vessel detected a large American

Doolittle Raid Takeoff
” Take off from the deck of the USS HORNET of an Army B-25 on its way to take part in first U.S. air raid on Japan.” Doolittle Raid, April 1942. 80-G-41196. National Archives Identifier: 520603

naval force powering toward Tokyo. That the Americans were intent on attacking the Empire was without question: the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, scarcely 4 months prior, was still a recent, searing memory. However, the fleet was still 600 miles from the coast. Because of the limited range of conventional carrier-borne aircraft, detection at such a distance normally would have given the Japanese ample time to intercept the invaders. Yet this invasion was far from conventional.

 

Shortly after detecting the Japanese vessel, 16 highly modified Army Air Forces (AAF) B-25 bombers took off in rapid succession from the USS Hornet. Led by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the aircraft skirted over Tokyo at mid-day, dropped their bombs, and egressed toward China without immediate loss. Unable to reach landing strips on mainland China, they were forced to ditch their aircraft. Eight airmen were ultimately captured by the Japanese, with three being executed. One crew, accidentally landing in Russia, were detained there. The rest returned safely.[1]

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17 B-25’s arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on 17 April, 2017 as part of the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. They are on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force until 18 April.

April 18th 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of this most amazing military feat. As part of the commemoration, 17 B-25s touched down at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, behind the Museum of the United States Air Force, early this morning on the 17th. I walked among the restored aircraft, took pictures, and marveled at the thought of that daring, and highly symbolic, mission. Doolittle was well aware that the likely impact to Japanese warfighting capability would be limited. But what was important was to show America, her friends, and her enemies that even in the wake of such a disaster as Pearl Harbor, the United States could fight. In that, the mission was a powerful success. Doolittle and his Raiders were instant American heroes, and the commander would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the raid.

The 17 B-25s will be on display through the morning of the 18th. Weather permitting, they will then conduct a flyover of the museum, followed by a memorial service, and then a B-1 Lancer flyover. LtCol Richard E. Cole, the last surviving Doolittle Raider (he’s 101 years old) plans to attend.

 

[1] Geoffrey Perret, Winged Victory, The Army Air Forces in World War II (New York: Random House, 1993) 150-153.).

One of the most frightening and humbling pictures I’ve ever taken (Thoughts on June 6)

The view at low tide, coming from the English Channel, of Utah Beach

I actually get choked up when I look at this picture and think on it. I took it at low tide, at Utah Beach, Normandy, France back in the early 2000s.

Some of you WWII historians might be able to correct me on some details, but the intent of the military planners of Operation OVERLORD was to hit the beaches at high tide. The Germans expected that, of course, so that’s why there were all the obstacles you see in the movies …the iron triangles and such, many of which were rigged with explosives. They were there to impede ingressing amphibious craft, which would find them difficult to detect when they were submerged under the water. So why would you want to hit the beach at high tide? Because otherwise your soldiers, marines, and sailors had this to look forward to: a long stretch of open, wet sand to cross on foot while the Nazis laid down withering machine gun fire, grenades, mines, etc from entrenched positions. Due to some delays, Allied Forces missed high tide, and had to hit the beaches at low tide.

So one day in late May, only a week or so removed from the anniversary date, I found myself in Normandy, France. I walked out at low tide, turned, and tried to imagine jumping off of my Higgins boat, and then racing toward the hardened defenses of Normandy. Take a look and imagine.

It was a humbling experience. God bless those men.

(Originally Posted on The Weathered Journal.)