Visitors to museum honoring past sacrifices unwilling to make present-day sacrifices
By THEODORE DECKER | The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch | Published: March 18, 2021
The postcard crossed an ocean, bearing news in two short sentences that must have devastated any loved ones who read it.
"I am prisoner in Germany," wrote First Lt. Walter Wanamaker, a World War I pilot from Akron. "One broken leg but alright."
That, followed by his signature, was all he wrote, though ultimately he did make it home. His postcard, yellowed with age, is tucked away in a display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force outside Dayton, Ohio.
I'd heard for years that the museum was not to be missed, but I made it there only recently. I'd heard also that the place was enormous, and is it ever.
Precisely how enormous didn't become clear until I walked through the first building, then a second, then a third, and then a fourth, all of them big enough to house dozens of the world's most iconic aircraft, from the Memphis Belle to the country's first Air Force One (known by the less memorable SAM 26000 when the president was not on board).
With so much time spent looking up, one might miss some of the smaller displays, like the one featuring Wanamaker's postcard. It would take days to read every bit of text in the museum, so I drifted to whatever caught my eye.
That included a headband worn by a Japanese pilot who was shot down during the Pearl Harbor attack. Inside the headband were small pockets, one of which contained a message of protection from a Japanese shrine. The characters on the headband spelled out a message from a sister, wishing her brother good luck in war.
If you took much literature in college, you might recall the often-anthologized five-line poem, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," by Randall Jarrell:
Jarrell, who served in the United States Army Air Forces, wrote the poem in 1945. Reading it beside an actual ball turret at the museum is an intense experience.
There is a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen and to POWs. There are horrifying descriptions of combat, like the helicopter door gunner who described the incoming gunfire during one landing attempt in Vietnam as "so thick you could walk on it."
There's even a parachute that was specially made for a boxer dog named "Vittles" that flew 131 missions with his owner, 1st Lt. Russ Steber, during the Berlin Airlift. Vittles never had to use his chute; he luckily wasn't with Steber on the day that Steber was forced to bail out of a C-47 transport aircraft over the Soviet zone. Steber was captured but eventually released.
Toward the far end of the museum stands a series of hospital walls.
The walls were taken from a hospital at Joint Base Balad in Iraq. Patients and visitors were encouraged to write whatever they wanted while there. There are tributes to medical staff and fallen comrades, shout-outs to particular units, inside jokes, and an understandable amount of colorful language that the museum inexpertly and somewhat comically has tried to conceal. Of course there were a few bad words; there was a war on.
The deeper one ventures into the museum, the heavier the weight of all these past sacrifices.
And then we had to go and blow it in the present.
Part of the draw of the museum for aircraft buffs is the chance to walk through and poke around in all sizes and sorts of aircraft. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, though, they have been off-limits. The museum makes that abundantly clear.
So why were so many visitors streaming into the belly of one of the larger aircraft?
Because they wanted to.
Someone had pushed aside the sign declaring the plane closed, but that was no excuse. The rule-breakers were literally brushing up against it as they passed by.
Soon enough, museum staff shooed everyone out, repositioned the sign, and cordoned the entrance off for good measure.
There was, no doubt, some muttering among the vanquished. Who are they to tell us what to do?
Behold the selfish, mildly inconvenienced and indignant in a shrine to selflessness.
Theodore Decker is a Columbus Dispatch columnist.