A World War II military history museum, an effort by the veterans, spouses and friends of the 390th Bomb Group, is getting a multimillion-dollar upgrade.
The 390th Memorial Museum is located on the grounds of the Pima Air and Space Museum and is known as a "museum within a museum." It houses memorabilia and artifacts from the bomb group based in Framlingham, England, that flew 301 combat and six humanitarian aid missions from August 1943 to April 1945.
"The theme we want people to understand is the courage and sacrifice of the men of the 390th," said Emile Therrien, the museum's executive director.
The 23,000-square-foot museum, built in 1985, is undergoing a $2.4 million renovation to add 12,000 square feet of exhibit, office and storage space, said Therrien. The expansion has been in the works for 2 1/2 years, and construction is expected to be completed by August.
The expansion will allow the museum to create a new entryway, a mock control tower, an indoor theater that can accommodate about 40 people and a mezzanine to increase exhibit space.
The exhibits, created from memorabilia donated by those with ties to the 390th, help share the group's story, but it's the volunteer docents who make the stories come alive. Visit the museum on a Thursday and you'll hear the firsthand accounts from 390th pilot Col. Richard Bushong.
"I want them to know and remember how and why we did what we did," Bushong said. "The how is what they're going to see here, how we were in the airplane, how we flew it, where we went, what we were after. The why, of course, was to free the people of Europe who were under the heel of the Nazis."
Bushong, 89, flew 28 missions with the 390th, the first when he was just 20 years old.
"And to finish 28 and to come home unscathed was just like a miracle," he said.
In Bushong's last mission with the 390th, a storm caused the 28-plane formation to fly over the airport at Brussels, Belgium, and into battle with German anti-aircraft gunners.
"The Germans were extremely accurate, every shell was right in our formation and exploding, and every airplane in our group was damaged," Bushong said.
Bushong's plane took heavy damage, two of the plane's four engines were damaged and he had to leave the formation and head back to base.
"When I got on the ground I put it in the mud to stop it; it's the only way I could stop the airplane. The brakes were shot up," he said.
The museum's displays honor the flight crews, ground crews, women who helped on the home front, prisoners of war and those who were killed in service.
"We're portraying what it was like to be in the Eighth Air Force and that was a time in our nation's history that was unique, the people who did it were unique," Bushong said.
"There aren't many of us left, so it's neat to have a memorial to show the people what the time was about and why we did it."
A mock Quonset hut shows where air crews lived. A map shows the sites of the bomb group's missions.
Photographs show some of the 19,000 tons of food dropped from the bomb bays of the group's planes in the Netherlands and the emaciated people who retrieved them as part of the group's chowhound missions.
"Although it's a small exhibit, it's very powerful; we have people from the Netherlands, from Holland today that tell us how their grandparents and great-grandparents would tell them about the food drop and how that saved hundreds of thousands of lives because the Germans took everything out of them, out of the fields, there was virtually no food," Therrien said.
Even more memorabilia is archived in a private library open to researchers.
But the crown jewel of the museum is a massive, refurbished B-17, the heavy bomber manned by the 390th's 10-member flight crews. Known as the Flying Fortress, the plane boasts a dozen .50-caliber machine guns.
"She could be pretty well beat up and they would bring you back," Therrien said.
The museum operates independently from the Pima Air and Space Museum and relies on donations from the public, membership dues and a grant from the Dorothy D. and Joseph A. Moller Foundation. Col. Moller is one of the museum's founders.
More than 100,000 visitors come to the museum each year, he said.
"We never know who's coming to the museum, so everyone that walks in is a treasure because we don't know what kind of history that person brings with them," Therrien said.