More than 75 years on, World War II remains central to our identity as Americans. It was the conflict that not only defined the United States’ forthcoming role as a superpower during the Cold War, linking national security with overseas conflicts, but also shaped our sense of self as the nation struggled with lingering economic depression and long-standing social tensions, coming together to fight common enemies. Aviation was central to victory in World War II and changed the nature and experience of warfare. For commanders, airplanes allowed new ways of waging war as the advent of aircraft carriers, transport planes, ground attack aircraft, and long-range bombers capable of devastating cities changed aviation from the supporting function it had played in World War I to an essential aspect of deciding the outcome of ground and naval battles. These new aeronautical technologies became a terrifying component of modern war, even for civilians living far from the battlefield.
For the National Air and Space Museum, telling this story to new generations has come with new challenges. The original World War II exhibition, which opened with the Museum in 1976 (and closed in early 2019), was both highly popular and fairly simple in its execution. With five fighter planes, the forward fuselage of the B-26 Flak-Bait, and the lush Fortresses Under Fire mural by artist Keith Ferris, the exhibit initially appealed to an audience with whom World War II was still largely a lived experience in some form. As the war fades from lived memory and is interpreted in the pages of history books and the occasional movie or video game, the Museum’s role in conveying the national significance of the conflict and maintaining in cultural memory becomes more urgent and more complicated.
This generational transformation of the Museum’s audience is coinciding with the ongoing physical transformation of our exhibits as part of a top-to-bottom renovation of the Museum in DC. The new Jay I. Kislak World War II in the Air gallery, scheduled to open in 2025, is being carefully planned to provide a poignant and exciting perspective on World War II aviation for new audiences. Besides the Museum’s use of stellar artifacts, we are reaching out to visitors through two new approaches: One is to place people in the foreground of the story to create empathy and sense of connection. The second is to use new technologies, particularly large format media, to create a dynamic and engaging environment.
Taking advantage of a larger space on the east end of the building (previously home to the Apollo to the Moon gallery), the exhibit will feature six full-size aircraft—FM-1 Wildcat, P-51D Mustang, Bf 109G, IL-2 Shturmovik, Ohka 22, and V-1—along with a C-47 nose section and the SBD Dauntless displayed outside the entrance. Smaller and no less remarkable artifacts will range from a kite designed by Air and Space’s own Paul Garber and used for training anti-aircraft gunners, to a Gremlin doll given to famed aircraft designer Alexander de Seversky by Walt Disney, to a machine gun from Lady Be Good, the ghostly B-24 bomber found over a decade after the war ended hundreds of miles from the combat zone.
While familiar stories of aeronautical heroism, like that of Marine Corps ace and Medal of Honor recipient Joe Foss, will feature prominently, World War II in the Air will also spotlight the experiences of often overlooked individuals. These include Soviet pilot Anna Yegorova, who flew 41 ground attack missions in the IL-2 Shturmovik against German troops before being shot down and captured, and Clifford Allen, a smoke jumper with the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion who fought wildfires and helped break down racial barriers. War workers and ground crew will be celebrated alongside the aircrew, like P-47 pilot George Rarey, who after perishing to German flak over Normandy, left a poignant cartoon diary for his son that he never had a chance to meet in person. By engaging with these moving stories, new generations of visitors will make connections with the past that keep the legacy of wartime service and sacrifice as a source of inspiration and reflection on a singular moment when aviation changed the world in ways both remarkable and terrifying.
The gallery will employ a new exhibition toolkit, including multimedia projections and interactive technology, to showcase people and some of the most moving imagery from the conflict. Maps will feature prominently on the walls and floor of the gallery, giving context to new generations less familiar with the events of the time. For all the dynamic new features and artifacts, the most powerful visual of the original exhibit will return in this new location. Artist Keith Ferris’ famed Fortresses Under Fire B-17 mural will once again take center stage. This time, a large interactive table will detail stories of the life and death struggles of the aircrew showcased in the art in a way that visitors in 1976 could only dream of. Together, these techniques will create a powerful link to a moment when the fate of the world depended on the men and women fighting the war in the air.
We recently announced a gift from the Daniels Fund to sponsor the Carrier War section of the gallery in memory of Bill Daniels. Jay I. Kislak World War II in the Air gallery is named in honor of World War II aviator Jay I. Kislak, thanks to a generous gift from the Kislak Family Foundation.