NAVAL AVIATION MUSEUM
By Capt. Nancy Aldrich
“At the entrance to the museum you are greeted by this statue of Naval Aviators from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam Way, and Desert Storm”
As I have mentioned already in a couple of my articles, I am avolunteer at the Naval Aviation Museum, in Pensacola, Florida. It is an amazing museum, and I encourage you to visit whenever you are in the area.
The museum is the brain child of Magruder H. Tuttle, Navy Captain and Chief of Staff to the Commander, Naval Air Basic Training Command. In 1955, he envisioned a museum that would offer students some exposure to the history of Naval Aviation. He discussed his idea with Captain Bernard M. “Smoke” Strean. They agreed that the best alternative to another class for flight students, would be a small museum commemorating the achievements of Naval Aviators. Their hope was that this museum would instill in young naval aviators a sense of pride in their elite service.
When they presented this idea to their boss, Vice Admiral Austin K Doyle, he saw it as a good public relations idea and forwarded the proposal to the Chief of Naval Operations with his endorsement. However, the response from Washington, D.C. was lukewarm. It was made clear that such an operation would have to come from the command’s own operating funds, and that no additional funds or personnel could be used to support a museum. That ended the idea of a Naval Museum, at least for a while.
Upon returning to Pensacola after several tours of duty, and wearing the stars of a rear admiral, Tuttle again brought up the idea of a naval aviation museum. This time, he received an enthusiastic response from Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Paul Fay. With Fay’s approval he launched a fund raising effort, using active duty personnel in the Pensacola area. Then, on December 14, 1962, Secretary Fay made an announcement formally establishing the Naval Aviation Museum, and charging it with the selection, collection, preservation and display of appropriate memorabilia representative of the development, growth and heritage of Naval Aviation.
On June 8, 1963 the Naval Aviation Museum officially opened its doors. It was housed in a renovated wood-framed building constructed during World War II. At that time, the museum was 8,500 square feet. Captain James McCurtain, USN, was the first director of the museum. The museum displayed eight aircraft that were rotated periodically with others that were in storage around the naval air station.
Now, we jump ahead almost 50 years to 2012. Today’s museum is about 300,000 square feet and houses more than 150 aircraft and displays. It is a beautiful facility, and will take about 2 days to see completely. But, even if you can only give it 1 day, don’t miss it!
This NC-4 (Navy-Curtiss) aircraft was designed in World War I as an anti-submarine aircraft. While it was not actually put into service until after the war, it was destined to play a major role in the history of naval aviation. On May 8, 1919, exactly 8 years after purchasing its first aircraft, the United States Navy launched this particular aircraft, along with its 2 sister ships, on an attempt at the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by air. The NC-4 was under the command of LCDR. A. C. Read, USN, and completed the 3000 mile trip from Naval Air Station Rockaway Beach in New York, to Lisbon, Portugal. With a maximum speed of 85 mph and a service ceiling of 4500 ft. It completed the crossing in 19 days. The other two NC’s failed enroute. This aircraft is on display in the museum.
With all the aircraft on display, I certainly do not have the space here to tell all the tales, but there is one other very special airplane to talk about.
The SBD-3 “Dauntless” was designed by Douglas company engineer Ed Heineman, as a dive bomber. The Navy first ordered them in April of 1939. The Dauntless came of age in the Battle of Midway, in June 1942. It accounted for every hit on the four Japanese carriers which were sunk during the first day of that battle. The Dauntless would sink over 300,000 tons of enemy shipping by war’s end and see service in hostile skies from Guadalcanal to Luzon. As a tribute to its durability, less than a hundred would fall to enemy guns during its service with Navy and Marine Corps Squadrons. 5321 were built, but very few exist today.
The SDB-3 Dauntless displayed here holds a unique place in naval aviation. On the morning of December 7, 1941, the aircraft was ashore on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor when Japanese bombs began raining down on the assembled ships of the U. S. Pacific Fleet. On March 10, 1942, it participated in one of the early carrier raids against Japanese forces in the Pacific, launching from the deck of the Lexington (CV-2), the U. S. Navy’s second aircraft carrier, to attack Japanese shipping at Lae and Salamaua, New Guinea. President Franklin Roosevelt, in a message to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, called the raid, “the best day’s work we’ve had.” Transferred to service with the Marine Corps in May 1942, this aircraft flew a combat mission against carriers on the morning of June 4, 1942, attacking Hiryu in the face of intense opposition by enemy antiaircraft gunners. It returned to Midway with over 200 bullet holes, a wounded gunner, and only one operable wheel of its landing gear.
There are many other displays like this Stearman used by George H. W. Bush for his “carrier” qualification. When the airplane was dedicated to the museum, President Bush came down for the ceremony. During his speech, he said, “I remember that ‘Yellow Peril,’ over Lake Michigan, open cockpit, middle of December, coldest I ever was in my life!” I believe that was the only time a sitting President has been in the museum. There is also President Nixon’s helicopter, and Blue Angels aircraft. All well worth seeing. However, there is another display that too many people miss. It is the Cubi Bar.
The Cubi Bar is a small restaurant in the museum, but it is much more than that. It is the actual Officer’s Club from Cubi Point. When we left the Phillipines, the Officer’s Club was dismantled and packed up. It is now in the museum. All the plaques hanging on the walls are original. If you were in that club and signed your name on the bar, it is still there, just in the museum.
Upstairs, there are more displays. I work up there in the section known as “The Home Front.” It is a display of a section of a typical small town, complete with small, 1943 style home, barbershop, pawn shop, cafe, and grocery store. It is great fun to talk to young people about life in the early 40’s. Many have trouble trying to understand how we lived and survived under rationing and the conditions during those years.
I look forward to seeing you in the museum one day!
By Capt. Nancy Aldrich, Aviation Writer
Make a Joyful shout to God, all the earth! Sing out the Honor of His name; Make His praise Glorious. Say to God, “How awesome are Your works!” Psalms 66:1-3
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