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The Mighty 8th

January 19, 2010

I saw in news recently the Georgia chapter of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society held their last statewide meeting.  Age is catching up to the men and travel is difficult.  After reading the article, I recalled my visit, a few years ago, to the Mighty Eight Air Force Museum outside of Savannah, Georgia.  I speed past the museum driving along Interstate-95 many times, seeing the bomber behind it catches the eye, but it was a long time before I stopped in.

Entering the museum grounds, you really do not get a sense of the place.  It is an attractive building but somehow does not capture the special nature of its contents.  I’m not sure any building could.  Opening its doors and entering is stepping back in time and you begin, just begin, to understand the debt we owe to these brave men.

I arrived late in the day and the museum had few visitors.  They give guided tours throughout the day but the last one was well underway.  The woman at the ticket counter said I was free to wander around though and suggested I speak with an older gentleman sitting near the entrance of the first exhibit.  He obviously was one of the tour guides and had finished for the day.  I felt bad at bothering him but did as the woman suggested.

The man sat in a folding chair and looked tired.  Not the kind of tired you get mowing the lawn on a hot day, rather the kind that takes a lifetime of accumulation.  Still, as I approached him, I could see a glint in his eye, a spark of the fire that started many years earlier.  I told him I knew I was too late for a tour but asked if he minded telling me about the museum and what I’d see.  He rose to his feet, no longer looking tired, full of life.  He took me by the arm and said, “Son, can’t do it, there’s just some things in life ya have to see.”  He took me on the tour.

Turns out, he fought with the Mighty Eighth during World War II and was one of several veterans giving tours.  He spent the next hour telling me what I would see at each exhibit, and then gave me time to take it in.  After, he told me something personal about each one.  Everything from letters from home and buddies lost, to flying in combat and finally coming home.  He gave me a history lesson I will never forget.  Without him, the day would have been special, with him – it was magical.  After the tour, I told my guide I wanted to write about it and asked if he minded me using his name, he said he did not but preferred me say, “it was just one of the boys.”

The Mighty Eighth paid a heavy price in World War II.  Of the over 200,000 men who served in it, 26,000 died in combat.  Over three times that number wounded.  They attacked Germany’s ability to make war, something the Germans were keen on protecting.  The Eight Air Force played a major role in the Allied victory.  Now, when I drive down I-95 and see the museum, I take my foot off the gas; give a glance and a salute to all the boys, the heroes of the air, who gave so much of themselves to our country.

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