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Bringing History to Life: Honoring Our World War II Veterans

Posted on Wed, May 6, 2015
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In the morning hours, before the National Air and Space Museum opens to the public, I’m often in the galleries going about my work among some of the great aviation treasures of the world. At every turn there is an airplane that left its mark on history or pointed the way to the future. It’s an inspiring setting. History’s ghosts swirl in your imagination. But, as rich as this experience is, there are times, alone in the quiet of the Museum, that I cannot help but imagine what it would be like to see these airplanes come back to life—to experience the sights and sounds of these world-changing machines before they became silent milestones of history in the Museum. An opportunity to do just that will occur on May 8, 2015, over Washington, DC. During the noon hour on that day, the 70th anniversary of VE-Day, the Arsenal of Democracy: World War II Victory Capitol Flyover will bring more than 50 World War II aircraft over the nation’s capital. In 15 separate formations, representing key battles or moments in World War II, a spectacular gathering of original warbirds will fly over the city to honor the men and women who served our nation during that critical time in history, and made a vital contribution to the Allied victory. Representing the millions who served in the air, on the ground, and at home in America building the tools our servicemen took to battle, several hundred World War II veterans will be assembled at the National World War II Memorial on the Mall to witness the flyover. It will be a special moment for them to remember, and an important moment for the rest of us to recognize what they did and sacrificed to preserve the society we freely share today.  In the spirit of the flyover, the Museum has created a special online audio gallery with curator talks, historic news reports, and music of the 1940s.

North American P-51 Mustang

 The North American P-51 Mustang is just one of many aircraft that will take to the sky on May 8. A Mustang can also be found in the Museum's World War II Aviation gallery (205).

Of course, the airplanes participating in the flyover are not from the Museum’s collection. These specimens do not fly anymore. They have been preserved for posterity. The Museum’s World War II aircraft collection is among the finest in the world. We owe a debt of gratitude to General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. After the war, he gathered and set aside the core of this collection with the goal of creating a national air museum, which was soon realized with the passage of the National Air Museum Act in 1946, establishing the forerunner of today’s National Air and Space Museum. The Museum’s mission is to preserve historic aircraft and make them accessible to the public. As our goal is to conserve as much originality as possible and ensure the indefinite preservation of these aviation treasures, it necessitates that our collection remain static and preserved in a museum environment. However, the flyover is a marvelous opportunity to partner with organizations and individuals who maintain historic aircraft to fly, bringing to life the sights and sounds of these airplanes that were critical to our success in World War II. The common mission of the National Air and Space Museum and the groups participating in the flyover to preserve this heritage, in our complementary ways, will create a unique experience for the public. Through this event, the Museum and the flying aircraft will reinforce each other’s efforts to highlight the excitement and importance of commemorating World War II and the veterans who did so much for our nation. I spend most days caring for the collection within the walls of the Museum. On May 8, you can be sure I’ll be outside soaking up the excitement as the Arsenal of Democracy roars past the Museum. For those outside of Washington, DC, the Flyover will be webcast.

The honoring of our World War II veterans continues the Saturday, May 9, when more than 20 airplanes participating in the flyover will be on view, along with a range of public programs, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia for Fly-In to Victory Day: A Celebration of the End of World War II in Europe.

These events are all about recognizing those who served in and lived through World War II, those still with us and those who live in our memories. Please share a story of someone you know who lived during World War II and add to our collective memory of that pivotal era in our history.