Keeping Score: Taking a mighty road trip to Georgia

  • Pilot and crew of the Mighty Eighth Air Force walk from their aircraft after a bombing mission. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE MIGHTY EIGHTH AIR FORCE

Friday, February 09, 2018

Good morning!

Every spring I promise to never leave Franklin County, and every winter I plan my escape to Florida. That’s why I was on the Joysey side of the George Washington Bridge the night after Christmas, trying to navigate past a web of highway signs without winding up in Moonachie. It was better than staying home and waiting for the polar air mass the Weather Channel was predicting to creep under the door.

The end point was Palm Beach International Airport, where I’d meet my friend Liz Spaulding and give her the keys to her Honda CR-V. I had five days to make the 1,400-mile trip, plenty of time to find the hard-boiled egg that was rolling around in the back of her vehicle.

The cold chased me all the way into South Carolina, where empty cups and plastic bags swirled around the gas pumps in Santee. A handwritten note taped to the door of the general store said, “Keep your pants up around your waist or don’t come in.”

I hitched up my trousers, went inside and risking my daughter’s wrath, bought a box of candy cigarettes for the grandkids.

The next morning I opted to take a two lane highway out of town and got lost. Without a GPS for guidance I stopped for directions at a rickety store on the corner of a desolate intersection.

“Will this road get me to Savannah?” I asked a lanky local who was staring out the window next to the cash register.

He thought for a moment and said, “No. 26 to 95.”

“Not this way?” I asked.

“Ninety-five,” he repeated, still not bothering to look at me.

Ten miles later, I decided he was right and turned back toward the store where he was waiting to say I told you so.

Travelers driving in either direction on I-95 near Savannah pass a warplane parked on stilts next to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force. I’d seen the aircraft on plenty of occasions, and decided it was time for a visit. At the exit, I crossed back over the interstate, took a left at the first traffic light and parked across from a John Deere dealership.

The visit proved to be an upclose preview of HBO’s mini-series “The Mighty Eighth” with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Visitors enter a large rotunda containing plaques and paintings honoring those who fought for the Mighty Eighth, including thirteen who were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The museum draws 100,000 visitors a year and is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is $12 and $11 for seniors. Guests have included Walter Cronkite, George W. Bush and John Travolta, who keeps a Boeing 707 and a Bombardier Challenger parked on the runway next to his home in Florida.

At the door I was greeted by Ed Tavares, who asked me to sign the guest register and pointed to the cargo parachute draped over the ceiling. Tavarez explained that the Eighth Air Force Headquarters was activated in Savannah shortly after Pearl Harbor to help coordinate the aerial campaigns in the European and Pacific theaters of operation.

He said that the “Mighty Eighth” flew 10,631 bombing missions, and that by war’s end 4,145 of its bombers had been shot down or crashed.

Its “maximum effort” was on Christmas Eve, 1944, when 2,034 four-engine bombers took off from airfields throughout England to help fight the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge.

Of the 350,000 who served in the Eighth Air Force during World War II, 26,000 were killed, 28,000 were taken prisoner and 2,000 parachuted behind enemy lines but were able to avoid being captured. The latter statistic is underscored by the photo of two members of the French underground hustling a dazed tail gunner to a safe house.

The museum’s Prelude to War exhibit focuses on Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. A photo of Hitler happily posing with four smiling children is accompanied by a transcription of the Hitler Youth Oath: “In the presence of this blood banner which represents our Fuhrer, I swear to devote all my energies and strength to the savior of our country. … I am willing to give up my life for him.”

The reality of Nazi Germany is inside display cases and hung on the walls of the starkly lit corridor. Visitors see Nazi armbands, propaganda films of German soldiers goose-stepping, daggers carried by the Luftwaffe and Walther P-38’s used by the Wehrmacht. A short film shows German planes bombing England’s airfields, shooting down Spitfires and killing 295 British pilots in two weeks. A piece of fuselage with a black swastika that was taken from a German Messerschmitt after it was shot down over England is also on display.

I strolled past a Nissen Hut where briefing advisors detailed the day (or night) mission, sometimes bluntly adding that they should consider themselves dead. “Some of you won’t come back from this. Some of you will, but you’ll be the lucky ones.”

The marquee attraction is a glistening B-17 G Flying Fortress that took six years to restore. The City of Savannah was the 5,000th airplane to be processed at Hunter Field in Savannah. It had been mothballed in Washington until eight years ago when it was shipped piece-by-piece to the museum where it was reassembled and dedicated in 2015.

Awestruck visitors gawked at the huge propellers and 1,200-horsepower engines that lifted the 75-foot-long aircraft off the ground and to a 150 mph cruising speed. They crouched down for a better look at the bubble turret on the underbelly where gunners wailed away at oncoming fighter planes and prayed for the bombardier to open the bomb bay doors and drop the 460-bomb payload onto the target, including four 2,000-pound “general purpose” bombs.

Visitors stood inside a section of fuselage and gripped the handles of a .50 caliber machine gun. They read the certificate every airman pined for — The Lucky Bastard Club — awarded for“returning no fewer than 30 times from bearing tons and tons of high explosive goodwill to the Fuhrer.”

In the gift shop, I bought a post card of a B-17 gunner carrying his weapon and mailed it to my grandchildren, figuring it meant more than a pack of candy cigarettes. Outside, the temperature hovered around 50, and I hopped in the car and drove away from the cold. In two days I’d be at the Orange Bowl watching a football game at Hard Rock Stadium, but more on that next week.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.