by Greg Niemann
It was the greatest conflict the world had ever seen, in terms of cost, of lives lost, and worldwide significance. World War II spanned the globe from large cities of Europe to small dots of islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Ultimately, it was air power that helped turn the tide of the war toward the Allied Forces, just as air dominance has been a major factor in every war since. Recognizing that, in the mid-1990s the Palm Springs Air Museum, a non-profit educational institution, opened to showcase those aircraft that changed the course of the world.
Just a few weeks after America went to war again to combat terrorism, I paid a visit to the museum. While on that day modern aircraft were methodically bombarding Afghanistan and its Taliban regime, I walked among the well-maintained planes from World War II. Their proud histories were displayed, leaving the visitor to imagine the havoc they wrought upon the enemy.
Was the spike in attendance that day because it was a weekend at the beginning of the “desert season” or was it a continuing patriotic display of support caused by the attack on the World Trade Center? These were new times and the military had taken on a new significance and importance.
Among the white-haired veteran visitors you’d expect to see at such a tribute were numerous families, young couples, and teen-agers, all soaking up the history of World War II. Scores of volunteer docents, mostly oldsters, mingled, many offering anecdotes about their involvement in the big war.
A visit to a museum became a day of memories, of pride, of patriotism. The old veterans through the decades have seen the public treat them in every fashion possible, from abhorrence and disgust, to mild interest and avoidance, to unflinching reverence and appreciation.
The museum, located on Gene Autry Way on the east side of the Palm Springs Airport, contains one of the world’s largest collection of flyable World War II military aircraft, many owned by Mr. Robert Pond, who became Chairman of the Board of Directors of the museum. There are also aircraft on loan from other private owners, the U.S. Navy and the National Air and Space Museum, rendering a total of about 26 on daily display.
Included are everything from Grumman Wildcats, Hellcats, Tigercats and Bearcats to a Boeing B17 Flying Fortress.
From conception in late 1993 until the public grand opening which attracted approximately 5,000 visitors on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1996, there was a lot of cooperation and work.
It started when two residents, Charlie Mayer and Bill Byrne, got the idea after seeing a P-51 flying low overhead. They got their friend Pete Madison, a former P-38 pilot, who in turn approached his friend Bob Pond, a former naval aviator who had been collecting and rebuilding old planes and cars.
They incorporated early in 1994, leased a 10-acre parcel of land on the Palm Springs Airport property and set about getting funding as not a penny of public funds were used. During 1995, a 50,000 square foot facility was constructed while the following year before the opening planes were acquired and the interior was prepared. Due to later additions, the environmentally controlled interior display space is now approximately 70,000 square feet.
The mission of the museum is to exhibit, educate and eternalize the role of the World War II combat aircraft and the role of the pilots and the American citizens in achieving this great victory. In addition to the warplanes, it houses rare and original combat photography, original artwork, artifacts, memorabilia and uniforms, graphics and continuous video documentaries.
There are two large hangars, the European and the Pacific hangars, and a smaller hangar, the Thomas L. Phillips Hangar, which houses the B-17G “Miss Angela” as well as a P-47 Thunderbolt.
The European Hangar features the flyable aircraft, classic cars and motorcycles, murals, many exhibits from the war in Europe, timelines and clippings from the war, uniforms, ribbons and more.
The Pacific Hangar has outstanding displays, timelines and murals of the Pacific Theatre of Operations. In addition to the aircraft are miniature models of the ships on Warship Row in Pearl Harbor, surrender documents, battlefield weapons, and a display providing tribute to Bob Hope and the USO tours.
The Buddy Rogers Theater hosts regular events, programs and three or four movies each day. Scheduled the week I was there was a Navajo Code Talker Program, hosting Thomas H. Begay USMC-WWII Navajo Code Talker.
A delightful surprise was the upstairs library called the James C. Ray Educational Resource Center. I’d never seen a grander collection of aviation books from World War II. The state of the art education center offers flight simulators for a modest fee.
Acquisitions and donations have been nothing short of phenomenal with the Donor’s Wall recognizing many prominent residents including Jane Wyman, Gene Autry, Baron Hilton and Buddy Rogers.
Hollywood has come to the planes and the planes have gone to Hollywood. Most recently, the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor” featured several planes from the museum, the Spitfire, P-40 and P-25 in photographic action sequences.
The non-stop museum trustees offer group tours, school and youth-oriented tours, corporate events, and catered events and site rentals. They also offer six levels of membership.
The pride of the Palm Springs Air Museum goes way beyond the fine aircraft and professional exhibits. What really helps this museum and makes it special are the hundreds of docents, many who served and survived air combat during WWII. When they take the time to explain an exhibit, you pay attention, because that oldster was likely actually there, fighting for America in a war that changed the course of history.