No doubt about it, she’s a beauty. A big one.
A hundred and three feet across, the B–17 bomber fills the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum’s entire Combat Gallery, the tips of its spit–shined wings just inches from the walls.
It’s a piece of history with all kinds of relevance: Built in 1945, it was the 5000th plane to be processed through Hunter Army Air Field. It was christened “The City of Savannah” because local citizens raised a half million dollars towards its commission—an astronomical amount back in the days when a cup of coffee still cost a dime.
Though the war ended before she could see combat, the bomber served as a mapping plane and helped put out wildfires out West before being retired to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in DC.
Tucked away in a massive hangar filled with aerospace skeletons, “The City of Savannah” was forgotten until 2009, when the Mighty 8th unearthed her and brought her back home.
“We literally pushed it out from under the Space Shuttle Atlantis,” recalls Mighty Eighth volunteer Jerry McLaughlin, a retired CIA officer and lead project manager. “This plane was in atrocious shape.”
McLaughlin and a team of 35 volunteers have been restoring the plane ever since, intending it to be “the finest static B–17 in the world.”
It took 24 months to clean out the slurry from its firefighting days and sand down the rust, and the team tapped the engineers at Gulfstream to rebuild the nose. Adding to the project’s challenges was the fact that when they trucked it back to the museum, the plane was 18 inches too tall for the gallery.
“We had to cut off the top of the tail with a skill saw,” chortles McLaughlin. “Then we had to rivet it back on.”
Now the outside of the WWII icon is as shiny as a new nickel, and its insides are being carefully reconstructed, all the way down to the gun turrets and every dial in the radio room.
It may not fly ever again, but “The City of Savannah” represents a profound journey in American history. Many of the B–17 volunteers are in their late 60s, retired veterans of the Korean War who went on to run companies and teach physics. They’re proud to honor the soldiers of WWII.
“These guys were 19, 20 years old when they flew overseas,” says McLaughlin, sharing a story of a 90 year-old WWII vet who visited the bomber last year and didn’t leave a dry eye in the place. “This holds a lot of significance.”
The project is just one installation in the Mighty 8th’s staggering collection of WWII memorabilia and archives, housed on the 10–acre property just off I–95. If all you’ve seen is the B–47 Stratojet visible from the freeway, know that there’s much more inside: A re–created Dutch home complete with secret compartments like the ones that hid Allied forces. A half dozen film reels depicting different stages in the war. A life–size panorama of the American Military Cemetery and Memorial in Cambridge, England.
“It’s amazing how many Savannah people have never been here,” muses Mighty 8th President and CEO Henry Skipper.
He and the rest of the Mighty 8th folks are hoping to change that by holding the museum’s annual fundraiser BBQ at the museum this Friday, Oct. 12. It’s the first time that the “Blue Jeans & Bomber Jackets BBQ” comes to Savannah (it’s been a remote fundraising event in Atlanta for the last two years), a result of the decision to forego the museum’s usual black–tie affair and loosen things up.
“Instead of a formal gala, we figured Savannah would appreciate something a little more casual, a little more fun,” he says.
Cocktails and food will be served under the museum’s parachute–draped rotunda, followed by a silent auction and tunes from 8 Mile Bend. The museum’s exhibits will be open to peruse, including “The City of Savannah” B–17 bomber as well as artifacts and accessories worn by the soldiers who defended the free world.
“Have you seen the authentic bomber jackets? That’s the original risquÉ artwork,” informs Skipper. “They’re really cool. Each one of them has a story.”
Blue Jeans & Bomber Jackets BBQ
Where: Mighty 8th Air Force Museum, 175 Bourne Ave., Pooler
When: Friday, Oct. 12, 6–11 p.m.