As I stood in front of the B-17 Flying Fortress – named City of Savannah – I realized this museum had a great story to tell. But it was more than just technical details about planes. This museum told the story of the Eighth Air Force’s birth, its impact on World War II, and the people who made it all possible.
The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force is located in Pooler, a suburb of Savannah, about fifteen minutes from downtown. Opening in 1996 just south of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, the museum’s purpose is to tell the story of the Eighth Air Force, preserve artifacts and vehicles, and educate the public.
I spent three hours touring the museum, chatting with some of the volunteers, and learning the Eighth Air Force history. I learned about the WASPs – an all-female pilot crew used during WWII – and read fascinating bravery and service stories. By the time I left, I knew this was a treasure. It’s the only museum in the country dedicated to telling the story of the Eighth Air Force, and I think everyone should visit to learn all about it.
National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force 175 Bourne Avenue, Pooler, GA | 912-748-8888 | www.mightyeighth.org
How Long Will You Spend in the Museum?
A cursory glance at interpretive panels during a casual walk through the museum will take about an hour. There is a lot of information to read, so you should add one or two hours, depending on how much you want to learn. My suggestion is to spend about three hours and take advantage of the comfortable in-house restaurant – Miss Sophie’s Marketplace – to take a break halfway through your visit.
Learn the History of the Eighth Air Force
The Eighth Air Force was created in 1942 at Langley Field in Virginia as the VIII Bomber Command. After briefly moving to Savannah, Georgia, the Eighth Air Force was assigned to England for World War II. During their time on the front lines, the Eighth Air Force pilots carried out hundreds of bombing missions across Europe.
The first hallway visitors tour at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force tells this story. Historical photos are paired with interpretive panels. Interactive displays play out the aerial battles and bombing missions. By the time I exited the gallery, I had understood the profound impact the Eighth Air Force had on the outcome of World War II.
Walk Around the Combat Gallery
At the heart of the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force is the Combat Gallery, a gargantuan room three stories tall filled with original aircraft, model planes, and components. The B-17 Flying Fortress City of Savannah – more on that in a moment – dominates the middle of the gallery.
Scattered around the B-17 are a PT-17 hanging from the ceiling, the nose section of the B-24 Liberator Fightin’ Sam, and dozens of scale models.
Admire the City of Savannah
The B-17 Flying Fortress was the most common bomber used by American forces during World War II – carrying out thousands of missions across Europe. But despite the long history of the B-17, there is one particular plane that never saw combat.
City of Savannah rolled off the assembly line shortly after V-E Day and was never flown to the front for use in combat. Instead, after sitting in a warehouse for a few years, the plane was flown to a small town in North Dakota to serve as a war memorial in front of the local high school. For the next thirty years, the plane’s WWII-era avionics would be stripped out, the plane heavily modified, and eventually falling into disrepair.
In 1984, the plane was flown to Dulles International Airport and entered into the Smithsonian Institute collection. Nearly forgotten for two decades, work finally began on restoring the B-17. In 2009, the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force acquired the B-17, transported it to Pooler, and restored the plane.
Dedicated in 2015 as City of Savannah – named in honor of where the plane was assembled – it’s one of the most intact displays of a B-17 Flying Fortress in the world. The bomber commands the center of the Combat Gallery at the museum. But the most surprising thing of all came from a blurb a volunteer shouted at me while I walked circles around the beautiful aircraft, “Those turrets are fully functional, ya know!”
Explore the Memorial Garden and Chapel
At the back of the Combat Gallery, a wall of glass allowed sunlight to light the exhibits. A set of doors seemed inviting, particularly with the concrete path wandering through a beautiful garden. “Can I walk out there?” I asked a museum volunteer. “Sure thing! Just be sure to come back in this door.” And off I went.
A long reflecting pool invites visitors to leave the enclosed museum behind for a chance to walk outside. A path to the right leads to a memorial dedicated to those who died when a B-24 bomber crashed into a church in England in 1944. Beyond that, an impressive B-47 Stratojet, the 1950s-1960s era Air Force bomber, sits on display near the interstate.
The chapel was built in 2002 as a centerpiece of the gardens. The English Gothic design featured gorgeous stained glass windows, 19th-century pews and is available for weddings, memorial service, and special events.
Read Stories of Veterans at Honoring the 8th
Honoring the 8th was one of the most fascinating exhibit spaces at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force. The gallery contains artifacts, uniforms, and stories from veterans of the Eighth Air Force.
At the back of the gallery is the Mighty Eighth Theatre. A short film plays continuously, showing the Eighth Air Force’s contributions to World War II and beyond.
Discover the Women Airforce Service Pilots
Before visiting the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, I had never heard of WASPs – Women Airforce Service Pilots. During the 1940s, discrimination against women meant becoming a pilot was a very difficult task. Because of ever-increasing casualties from the war, the Air Force eventually needed female pilots.
After graduating from flight school, the WASPs were sent to bases around the world. Their most common assignment involved ferrying new and repaired aircraft. They were trained on 77 different aircraft and even flew the B-29 Superfortress.
As I wound my way through the exhibits, circling The City of Savannah, I eventually found myself in the space of the museum dedicated to telling the story of the WASP. I found the display fascinating because I had never even heard of them before. Portraits of the female aviators hung on the wall beside interpretive panels detailing their history, achievements, and life after World War II. The exhibit was wonderfully crafted and inspired me to research the topic further after leaving the museum.
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Visit the Roger A. Freeman Eighth Air Force Research Center
If you have a particular interest in the Eighth Air Force’s history, the Roger A. Freeman Eighth Air Force Research Center is the place you will want to spend some time. The research center contains almost 10,000 books and over 60,000 previously unpublished photographs related to the Eighth Air Force.
Researchers must contact the research center in advance to schedule time to access the materials, but local museum members can access the library at any time.
Browse the Gift Shop
The final stop on tour through the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force is the gift shop. It’s an enormous gift shop with clothing, books, models, toys, and décor. Flags hung on a wall beside lapel pins, and small gift ideas filled every nook and cranny of the gift shop.
Dine at Miss Sophie’s Marketplace
Some museums have restaurants for the guests, but I’ve never come across a restaurant in a museum modeled as a 1940’s London pub. The menu includes British fare such as Shepherd’s Pie and Fish & Chips, but you’ll also find more traditional American items on the menu.
Admission to the museum isn’t actually necessary to dine at Miss Sophie’s Marketplace. Still, if you have purchased admission, you can re-enter to continue your tour after getting something to eat. The restaurant is typically open from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. only.
Chat with the Volunteers
One of the most rewarding moments during my visit to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force was chatting with a group of volunteers. They were working on the B-17 Flying Fortress City of Savannah – and so couldn’t entirely be bothered with a conversation – but still, they told me a few stories about the aircraft under continuous restoration.
Between the crews working on restoration projects, the lady at the desk in the gift shop, and the lady who gladly took my money in exchange for admission, the museum’s volunteer staff were friendly. Eager to help and passionate about working at the museum, they made all the difference in the world for a wonderful visit. And listening to their stories about the exhibits that go beyond the interpretive panels was priceless.