Magazine article America in WWII

Warplanes on the National Mall

Magazine article America in WWII

Warplanes on the National Mall

Article excerpt

IT ALL STARTED WITH the Golden Age of Flight. Aviation was new and exciting. World War 1 pilots made headlines dog-fighting over battlefields. Flying records were set. Planes were evolving from wood and fabric to sleek metal. Then along came World War II to launch aviation technology into the future.

The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC, tells the story of aviation as well as any place in the world. Its collection features more than 60,000 artifacts that touch on all of aviation and space-flight history. And World War II is an important part of that. Six exhibits here focus on and explain the critical role of the war in aircraft development.

Our tour of the museum begins with the "Golden Age of Flight" exhibit, which highlights aviation between the world wars. On display here is the Hughes H-l, designed by Howard Hughes, the famous entrepreneur, movie producer, and aviator. Between the years 1935 and 1937, Hughes set the transcontinental speed record (332 mph) and the world speed record (353 mph). Historians say his radial-engine H-l influenced the development of a number of WWII aircraft, including America's Grumman F6F Hellcat and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, Japan's Mitsubishi A6M Zero, and Germany's Focke-Wulf Fw 190.

Advancements in aircraft design spurred armies and navies to develop new strategies. A display of photographs and exquisite models tells the story of US Navy efforts in the 1920s and 1930s to adapt aircraft for naval deployment and of parallel developments in the army air corps and strategic bombing. A theater in this exhibit features a video on Major James "Jimmy" Doolittle, who led the pivotal Tokyo Raid in 1942.

When you move through the museum from the interwar period into World War II, an impressive mural of a B-17 Flying Fortress on a bombing run greets you. The painting, Fortresses under Fire by Keith Ferris, acts as the backdrop for the "World War II Aviation" exhibit.

Five land-based fighters are the focal points of the exhibit, each from a different nation. A Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-6, used extensively in the Battle of Britain, represents Germany. Suspended overhead as if in flight is a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero, used in the raid on Pearl Harbor and for Kamikaze attacks. The Italian Macchi C.202 Folgore is a rare example from the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian Royal Air Force. Britain's legendary Supermarine Spitfire Mk VII helped defend England in the Battle of Britain and served on every major battlefront. A US North American P-51D Mustang, arguably the best fighter in the war, rounds out the fighter display.

Visitors can get a bird's-eye view of these aircraft from the balcony, while learning about their flights from the photographs and objects lining the walls. Among the displays are "Tokyo Raid" and "WASP" (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Part of the fuselage of the Martin B-26B Marauder Flak Bait is on display. Incredibly, Flak Bait survived more than 200 missions, sustaining more than 1,000 bullet and shrapnel holes, having its hydraulics shot out twice, and returning to base with only one engine twice. A large portion of one wall is dedicated to mementoes from various pilots. Adding a personal touch are V-Mail from loved ones, pinups, a pack of Chesterfield cigarettes, a K-Ration breakfast box, snapshots, and playing cards.

The "Sea-Air Operations" exhibit covers the naval aviation that revolutionized sea warfare. Upon entering, the shriek of a boatswain's whistle brings you aboard a partial re-creation of an aircraft carrier. …

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