WW II exhibit receives top state honor

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE — The Museum of Aviation’s World War II exhibit featuring the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment has won the Georgia Association of Museums and Galleries’ Exhibit of the Year award for 2008.

The award was presented in late January at the association’s annual conference in Marietta.

The exhibit, the featured attraction in the museum’s new World War II hangar, tells the story of the June 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, through the eyes of the Georgia unit formed at Camp Toccoa in 1942.

More than 2,000 507th paratroopers — flying aboard 117 C-47s — jumped into the murky blackness June 5. Only 700 returned to England after 35 days of combat.

The association cited the exhibit’s “compelling techniques and multiple facts to detail an important story to the state and nation,” according to a Museum of Aviation news release,

The exhibit designer, Michael Pierce, said a team of professionals and volunteers spent two years to produce the 6,000-square-foot display.

The exhibit features a depiction of the planning room where Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower gave the D-Day launch order. A cut-away of a C-47 depicts the fully manned transport as it flew to the jump point, complete with lighting effects and the noise of engines, flak and tracer shells.

A C-47 suspended from the ceiling shows the transport flying over a replica of the Cauquigny chapel, a rallying point after the 507th took the nearby causeway at great loss of life. The shell-damaged chapel hosts two films: “Down to Earth” and a movie commissioned by the museum, “Papa Said: We Should Never Forget.” The latter tells the story of two French girls who lived under German occupation and learned the importance of freedom.

Mike Rowland, the museum curator, said the 507th story is only the beginning for the new World War II hangar, which officially opened this past October. Several exhibits and aircraft — now displayed elsewhere on the museum property — eventually will be consolidated into the 60,000-square-foot structure.

The Tuskegee Airman display, honoring the nation’s first black military airmen, is a priority.

“We’re really excited about that story and the opportunity to engage it even more,” Rowland said. The exhibit is housed in Hangar One.

“There are some very interesting things we can do with it,” he said. “But until we’re able to move it and do it right, it will probably stay where it is. We’re not going to move it and have it half-baked.”

Another priority is the 14th Air Force “Flying Tigers” display now on the first floor of the museum’s Eagle Building.

“We’re also working on our C-46. The B-29 also is coming back together,” he added. “Of course we’re always hopeful of locating a B-17 and B-24.”

The curator said there is a sense of urgency since so many World War II veterans are dying. That fact was underscored five years ago when he was conducting research at the University of Florida.

“I was researching the regional airport that was an Army airfield during World War II,” Rowland explained, “and it struck me that I was not finding many people from that era. I was at least 10 years too late.”

The urgency is even greater today. “There are still some terrific stories out there to capture,” he said. “But the opportunity to talk with the veterans themselves is very quickly going away.”

The Museum of Aviation, including the World War II display hangar, is free and open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

To contact Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239.