Among dozens of displays at USAF's Enlisted Heritage Hall
is the overhead turret of a Consolidated Vultee B-32 Dominator, the only one in
existence. It is so complete that "all we have to do is plug it in and hit
it with hydraulics, and we are ready to rock and roll on twin
.50-calibers," reports CMSgt. Wayne Fisk. When visitors look closer at the
turret, they see that it bears serial number 1.
In 1983, CMSgt. Bobby Renfroe, the first enlisted Commandant
of the Senior NCO Academy, wondered why no Air Force facility existed to
discuss and preserve enlisted heritage. With SMSgt. William Allen (now retired),
Chief Renfroe kicked off a drive that led to the establishment of the Hall in
1984. Today, the museum at Gunter AFB, Ala., boasts 6,000 square feet of
exhibit space and nearly 100 displays.
Equipment on display provides a close-up view of combat as
seen by enlisted aircrews.
There's a B-17/B-24 ball turret so tiny that it's hard to
imagine how a gunner, lying on his back with his feet up in stirrups, could
ever track and shoot enemy aircraft.
There's a B-52D tailgun from the Vietnam era. The
compartment looks fairly roomy. But, Chief Fisk points out, many Vietnam
bombing flights lasted fourteen to sixteen hours. In the 1950s, during the Cold
War, flights could last up to twenty-four hours. "So," explains Chief
Fisk, who was the Hall's first director, "when one thinks of the amenities
inside here—the seat that folds down into a bed, the hot cup for making coffee
or tea, the little portable john—it is still austere for one to be locked in
here for twenty-four hours at a time."
The exhibits not only testify to the role of enlisted personnel
in combat but chronicle their contributions to the development of airpower as
well. The tour traces USAF's lineage from the US Army to the present, from the
early days of ballooning to Vietnam.
One pictorial exhibit of Civil War balloons depicts the
earliest Army use of lighter-than-air craft. A photograph, taken during the
Civil War Battle of Fair Oaks, portrays enlisted men holding the ropes to a
balloon. Chief Fisk notes that these men are precursors of today's USAF
aerospace ground equipment personnel.
Another exhibit honors the progenitor of today's enlisted
Air Force, Cpl. Edward Ward. He became, in 1907, the first enlisted man
appointed to the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps.
Also present in the exhibits of this era are photos of Cpl.
Vernon Burge, the Army's first enlisted pilot. Lt. Frank Lahm taught him how to
fly, and Corporal Burge received his pilot certification in 1912.
The War Years
Enemy flags vividly mark transitions to different combat
eras: the Bismarck flag of World War I, Nazi and Imperial Japanese flags of
World War II, and North Korean and North Vietnamese flags.
"The advent of World War I revolutionized the use of
both balloons and airplanes," says CMSgt. Donald B. Hines, the Hall's
current director. "Tether ropes and early telephones illustrate early
balloon utilization, while Jenny wicker seats, wing center struts, and personal
flying gear depict the enlisted pilots' roles."
A rare photo, taken around 1918, shows a group of sergeant
pilots standing beside a World War I aircraft. Nearby, there's a copy of the
1919 flying regulations. "Rule #21," notes Chief Hines, "says
that aviators will not wear spurs while flying."
There's a tribute to Pvt. Frederick Libby, the first American
to down five enemy aircraft in World War I, and an almost life-size painting of
Cpl. Eugene Bullard, the world's first black fighter pilot.
Corporal Bullard flew missions with the French Flying
Corps. His original 1917 pilot's certificate is prominently displayed.
Corporal Bullard was "a national hero of France but a forgotten son of
America," says Chief Hines.
In the World War II section, enlisted and sergeant pilots
are again recognized in a pictorial display. They flew virtually every type of aircraft
in the World War II inventory. According to Chief Hines, plans exist to add
many more original photos to this exhibit.
There's a tribute to enlisted crew members of the Doolittle
raid and to two renowned gunners, Joseph Sarnoski and Johnny "Zero" Foley.
A display case is filled with wartime artifacts such as patches, buttons, old
silk maps, books, and pamphlets. A radio log tells the story of an aircraft and
a radio operator's struggle to make it to Hickam Field, Hawaii, with "one
motor out, other bad." There's a tribute to the Women's Army Air Corps.
Entering the section devoted to the Korean War, visitors
notice that exhibits are few. "This is America's 'forgotten war,"
says Chief Hines. "At present, we have a display case containing only a
few artifacts, like an old parachute and a helmet. We plan to add more photos
Ground and air uniforms and accessories depict the roles of
airmen and women in Vietnam. A pararescue jumper mannequin, complete with scuba
gear, parachute, and maroon beret, is on display. There's also a model of a
combat controller ready to set up a drop zone. He is outfitted with a small
oxygen bottle, altimeter, and parachute. There are mannequins of an AC-130
gunship crew member and of an Air Force woman wearing green fatigues and
combat gear. Assorted memorabilia of the era include ID cards, liberty passes,
a driver's license, and photos of Jolly Green Giant rescue teams.
Among the more popular exhibits is a replica of a Vietnamese
prisoner of war cell. Photographs of pictures drawn by a former POW line the
exterior and depict the agony that prisoners endured. Inside the cell, there's
a mannequin clad in a POW uniform. The outfit was donated by retired CMSgt.
Gary Morgan, shot down during a Linebacker II B-52 strike on Hanoi. Many former
POWs have visited this display. "We ask them to sign the walls inside the
cell," says Chief Hines. More than a dozen have done so.
Next to the cell are artifacts brought back from Hanoi's
cells: POW shorts, cigarettes, memos, notes, candy, and a bar of Russian lye
soap so caustic that it's dissolving a razor blade resting on it. There's also
a POW/MIA bracelet display and a list of all the Air Force enlisted personnel
still missing in action in Southeast Asia.
Enlisted Honors and Traditions
Five original paintings, donated by the Illinois Air
National Guard, depict the heroic actions of the five enlisted US Army Air
Forces and USAF Medal of Honor recipients. SSgt. Henry "Red" Erwin,
SSgt. Archibald Mathies, Sgt. Maynard H. Smith, and TSgt. Forrest L. Vosler
received the Medal of Honor for their actions in World War II. The only
enlisted person to receive the Air Force Medal of Honor from the Vietnam era
was A1C John L. Levitow.
Another exhibit honors the nineteen enlisted recipients of
the Air Force Cross. "We have two Air Force Crosses on display—A IC
William Robinson's and now CMSgt. Duane Hackney's," says Chief Hines.
Visitors are ushered through a white archway to the Chief
Master Sergeants of the Air Force Room and to the Order of the Sword Room.
The first room honors the nine men who have risen to the top
of the enlisted corps. Plans are under way to install a bronze statue of the
first CMSAF, Paul W. Airey.
The Order of the Sword is an honor bestowed by the enlisted
force on its most devoted leaders or advocates. The tradition has its roots in
the thirteenth century and was revived by the Air Force in 1967. A huge broadsword,
handmade by a young staff sergeant, is displayed in a showcase. Panels list the
names of all known recipients. Former CMSAF Donald L. Harlow is the only
enlisted person ever to receive the Order of the Sword, and his award is part
of the exhibit.
The "Wall of Achievers" salutes former enlisted
men and women who wore stripes and later became general officers or well-known
figures. Included are singer Johnny Cash, actor Charlton Heston, test pilot
Chuck Yeager, astronaut Dick Scobee, and USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welch.
About half of the items on display at the USAF Enlisted
Heritage Hall were donated by individuals. Students at the Senior NCO Academy
often donate artifacts, and each class passes the hat for contributions to the
Hall. "We rely almost entirely on contributions and fundraisers,"
says Chief Hines.
The Hall is now in Phase II of a three-phase growth program.
The goal of Phase III is to raise several million dollars to fund a new and
permanent Heritage Hall facility, including a static display park for enlisted
career field-related aircraft and equipment.
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