Many of us are sons and daughters (or grandsons and granddaughters) of WWII veterans— the Greatest Generation. All of us owe an invaluable debt of gratitude to everyone who played a role, whether on the homefront or on the front lines in that conflict. From civilians nurturing victory gardens to servicemen battling sub-freezing temperatures and hostile fire, this strong, silent generation secured and assured the American way of life for all generations to follow.
Before World War I earned that sardonic moniker, it was known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars—if that were only true. The second war that engulfed the globe had many strategic clashes that altered the course of history, but none more pivotal perhaps than the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
To many, D-Day (codename Operation Overlord) is remembered as an epic ground battle where 1Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy, France with more than 155,000 soldiers. But D-Day was more than a hard-fought ground battle; it was the concerted effort of sea, land, and airborne forces. Before the first wave of troops reached the beach, naval and air forces had already worked tirelessly to “soften” 2Axis defensive installations and achieve air superiority.
High above the battlefield, the seemingly insurmountable task of achieving air superiority fell upon the United States Army Air Force’s Eighth Air Force—the air force assigned to the European Theater of Operations. Flying out of dozens of makeshift airfields in England, the Eighth Air Force included thousands of heavy bombers and nimble fighters. More than 350,000 men served the Mighty Eighth between its inception in 1942 and war’s end in 1945. The role the Eighth Air Force played in clearing the way for the D-Day invasion cannot be overstated—especially from such humble beginnings in Savannah.
If you’ve ever wondered why the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force is in Savannah, it’s because the mightiest air armada ever assembled started in the National Guard Armory on Bull Street in Downtown Savannah. On January 28, 1942, the Eighth Air Force became one of the numbered air forces serving the United States military. But before the air force could be marshaled and sent to the European Theater of Operations, before it would earn its reputation as the “Mighty Eighth,” and before it could become the most productive and most decorated group in Air Force history, it needed something— aircraft. Believe it or not, the Eighth Air Force was activated on Bull Street in 1942 with seven people and zero aircraft.
Thanks to American ingenuity, factories were already being converted or built from the ground up to manufacture bombers, tanks, ships, and more to stock the Arsenal of Democracy. As the master of production-line efficiency, Henry Ford’s Willow Run bomber plant in Michigan completed one four-engine B-24 bomber every 55 minutes.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that signaled the beginning of the end of World War II. As 2019 unfolds, there will be countless opportunities to show our appreciation for the brave men and women who served in our military then and now. There will no doubt be plenty of parades to watch, documentaries to stream, and special events to attend at places like the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia, and the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, Georgia. The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force is commemorating D-Day with a new exhibit, Eighth Air Force and D-Day through Images and Memories. The exhibit, now open, takes visitors through D-Day and its aftermath by featuring personal effects and artifacts, historical photographs, and audio recordings of interviews with Eighth Air Force veterans. The D-Day exhibit at the National Infantry Museum includes a permanent fixture depicting US Army Rangers fearlessly scaling the 100-foot high cliffs at Pointe du Hoc at Normandy.
When the spirit moves you to take a moment and pay homage to the Greatest Generation, consider a trip to our local national treasure. As you enter the Museum’s rotunda, you’ll see, among others, a bronze bust of Academy Award-winning movie star Jimmy Stewart, who put his Hollywood career on hold at the peak of his popularity to serve his country in the Mighty Eighth Air Force. In his role as the pilot-in-command of a B-24 heavy bomber, he once again assumed the role as leading man in a blockbuster of a different kind. Truth be told, every biography about Stewart states that he was much more proud of his military service (which included two Distinguished Flying Crosses) than his two Oscars.
Also not to be missed is the Museum’s centerpiece, a B-17 named City of Savannah, an immersive Mission Experience, an Old English chapel with fighter and bomber-themed stained glass windows, and of course Miss Sophie’s restaurant—the best fried chicken in the area.
And if you’re lucky, you may just have a chance to thank a WWII veteran like Paul Grassey, a 96-year-old former B-24 pilot who flew 13 of the 600,000 missions completed by the Mighty Eighth in just 36 months during World War II. The opportunities to say “thank you” and shake the hand of a WWII veteran are fleeting—do it while you can.
“City of Savannah”
The B-17 bomber on display at The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force is the centerpiece—literally, it sits in the center of the circular gallery. The City of Savannah represents the 5,000th B-17 processed in Savannah during WWII. Over the course of the last 10 years, more than 50,000 labor hours have been donated to painstakingly restore the aircraft to its original condition as if it just rolled off the production line in San Diego. While the B-17 is the centerpiece, stories of heroism, courage, and selfless sacrifice are the focal point.