Spring Break: History comes alive at the 390th Memorial Museum

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Kipling

Dear Students,

On the grounds of the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona is the home of the 390th Memorial Museum. The museum is a labor of love on the part of a collection of World War II veterans who wanted to honor their comrades. I’ve heard some folks complain about the quality of our public schools. For those that feel that history is not being taught well in our communities, I urge you to visit your local museums–our schools may not change fast enough to keep up with the times, but I have no complaint about the work our museums are doing to educate, inspire and connect with the community.

I was not familiar with the 390th, so I didn’t know what to expect before I walked in the doors. From popular culture, I’ve learned about Flying Fortresses, the B-17’s that carried 10 men crews. The museum features a gleaming B-17 bomber with “I’ll be Around” emblazoned on it’s side.  A film titled “Pistol Packin’ Mama” is looped for viewing in an antechamber. Behind the film is a map of anti-aircraft installations over Germany. Another display includes a sample mission map. Watching the film will acquaint even the novice student of history with enough context to appreciate the exhibits. A mainstream film about B-17 bombers is Memphis Belle. (The real Memphis Belle is undergoing a restoration that started in 2005 and is expected to last 10 years. You can visit the Memphis Belle for free during the restoration as part of a behind the scenes tour offered by National Museum of the US Air Force (free), in Dayton, Ohio.)

When I visited with my son, I promised him a trip on the tram through the boneyard. Turns out the tram rides sold out before noon, fortunately for us. What I should have done was inquired at the desk if any of the docents were speaking that day. As we entered the museum I noticed a crowd of people listening to a docent who was seated on a stool in front of the B-17.

It seemed as if every one in the museum was collected in one area. I went over to investigate.

My boys are 6 and 4. I grew up visiting with my great uncles Ray, Tom and Bud who were all WWII vets. I think it was easier for me to learn about World War II because I had a personal connection with the Greatest Generation. I wanted my boys to hear a vet speak and make that connection as well.

Colonel Richard Bushong USAF, retired speaks on Thursdays at the 390th Memorial Museum. Come to meet him.

I typed up the portion of Colonel Bushong’s remarks that I was privy to while we visited–he was a B-17 pilot in the 390th. He completed his 25 missions before he turned 21. They might give you an idea of how extraordinary these oral histories are. Any errors in the notes are based on my memory, not the talk as I took notes when I went home that night. Later that night I read his memoir, My Wars by Richard Bushong. My notes are below:

“Regarding parachutes. We wore two o-rings on the front of our flight suits so that we could fasten the chutes if we needed too. We kept our harnesses cinched tight. I never had to bail out, which is good. When you deployed the chute sometimes it would hit you in the face which is not nice. Our ball turret gunner had to leave his parachute outside the ball turret. The way he got in was from a door that opened with a hand crank. He would fold himself inside for about 8 hours. You did not want to be claustrophobic. If your plane was struck in the fuel line (which was in the wing?–KK) this would create an explosion that would blow the wing off. This would make the plane spiral. You did not see many chutes come out of a plane like that because of centrifugal force. If we had to bail out, it was my job to hold the door open (gestures with red light pointer to escape hatch) I would be the last to go, so no one to hold the door for me. I didn’t really figure that out at the time or else I would have been more scared and I was already pretty scared.

To give you an idea of the casualty rates (this is where my transcription may have errors), in July of 1942 a squadron of 25 B-17 crews were sent overseas. In August they went into service. Of those 24 planes, only one survived. Now every plane destroyed is a lost crew of ten men. Not every plane lost all crew members, some bailed out. For every 100 crew members that bailed out 47 were killed and 53 were imprisoned. 

Regarding the climate of the B-17. The temperature of the plane was the same inside as outside. The plane was a thin metal shell. We flew 25,00o to 30,000 feet. My flying was done in the wintertime over Germany. Our plane was between 20 and 40 degrees below zero. Now our cockpit was a little bit warmer as we had the number 2 engine blowing a bit of warm air into the cockpit to keep the windows defrosted unless it was shot out. On three occasions my number 2 engine was shot out, but every time that happened we were already heading home. Now our crew dressed a little differently than we did. They wore what amounted to blue underwear with electric wires running through it under their sheepskin flight suits. These plugged directly into the plane’s electrical system. They worked all right. After the war someone took a look at them (we have one on display here) and said that would make a nice blanket. So that was the beginning of the electric blanket.

Now when I started out I was a co-pilot. When we flew our bombing runs we would spell each other every 15 or 20 minutes. We flew in such tight formation that it was hard work to maintain and we had to spell off frequently. When I flew I always looked at the same spot in front of me. I just tried to keep exactly in formation. I was not afraid when I was flying. When I was not flying, I had time to look al around at all the other planes, and the flak coming at us, the planes falling out of the sky. At times like that I was scared.

I did not talk very much about my service or what I did after the war. My son asked me for the tail numbers of the planes I flew. I researched the planes here. I flew 7 different B-17’s. He made of list of when they were built, the dates when I flew them and when the planes were destroyed. It was astonishing. I did not know what happened to these planes. (gestures with laser pen at wall of B-17 photos showing nose art and indicating his planes) One plane I flew, the Belle, the crew flew for 7 missions. We went on leave. When we came back, the Belle was destroyed. I learned that from this list. (gestures with pointer) this plane, the Royal Flush, was shot down with my crew but I wasn’t with them. I was in the hospital. Does anyone want me to buy them a lottery ticket (laughs). I guess sometimes it’s good to be in the hospital. Of the 7 planes that I flew 6 were destroyed in battle. The only plane that survived was named Johnny Walker. (Laughs) I guess that makes me a scotch man, but I’ve got a good reason I guess. I flew my 25 missions but I guess that was not enough.  My last mission was in 1971 in Vietnam. I’m the only 390th pilot that is a member of this museum. I’m grateful to talk to you today and I’m happen to answer your questions. Thank you for coming.”

Colonel Bushong will celebrate his birthday on March 26, 2012. Happy Birthday Colonel and God Bless You.

Richard Bushong, B-17 WWII Pilot

 The community surrounding our museums are extraordinary. I took both my children to this museum, on different days last week. I have an annual membership. ($40.00 and good for the Pima Air Space Museum and nearby Titan Missile Musem). Children 6 and under are free. My experience is that most local museums are humbly priced to make them accessible to families. For non-locals that read this post, look around your community for the historical societies and museums and make history come to life. Tell me, what museums do you support in your community?

Blue Skies,
Mrs. Kenney

I am grateful that we were able to spend some time with Colonel Bushong over spring break. He autographed the book for my sons.

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