Thursday, August 6, 2009

Military history events at Museum of Flight

The Museum of Flight has several public programs with connections to military history coming up in August. The cost to attend is museum admission.

* "Sweethearts of the AEF," a play performed by the museum's resident Amazing Skies Theater volunteer acting troupe, takes to the stage at 2 p.m., Sat., Aug. 8 in the William M. Allen Theater.

The musical is based upon the life of Elsie Janis, a Broadway star who went to France in 1917 to entertain World War I American troops, the AEF or American Expeditionary Forces. The show repeats Aug. 15 and Aug. 22 at 1 p.m. in the Museum's Personal Courage Wing replica of a French Farmhouse Courtyard.

* Also on Aug. 15, USS Enterprise survivors of the 1969 accidental explosion of a rocket on an F-4 Phantom II fighter jet will be on hand in the William M. Allen Theater at 2 p.m. to talk about it. The accident on Jan. 14, 1969 left 28 dead and 343 injured.

* "Sharpie: The Life Story of Evelyn Sharp, a lecture and book signing by author Diane Bartels, is planned for Sat., Aug. 22 at 2 p.m. Bartels researched and wrote the inspiring book about Evelyn Sharp, known as "Nebraska's aviatrix."

Born in 1919, Sharp was motivated by her first airplane ride at 15 to earn a commecial pilots license in the next three years, and by the time she was 20, was one of only 10 women flight instructors in the U.S. Sharp became one of the first women to ferry U.S. Army Air Force fighters during WW II, and lost her life in the service of her country during a takeoff accident while piloting a P-38.

Meanwhile, the museum, as home of the American Fighter Aces Association and the Personal Courage Wing of war planes, through the summer has brought out a collection devoted to the U.S. Eighth Air Force's 56th Fighter Group, in which pilots flew the durable P-47 Thunderbolts.

Known as "Zemke's Wolfpack" for their commander, Col. Hubert "Hub" Zemke, the unit was one of the most successful American fighter units of WW II. Video includes rare color footage from the documentary, Zemke's Way.

Among items on display are artifacts and photos of James C. Stewart -- not to be confused with the actor, James M. Stewart who flew bombers. James C. Stewart was a fighter ace who recorded 12.5 "kills" and was awarded the Distinquished Service Cross, the nation's second highest medal for valor.

The 56th's top ace was Lt. Col. Francis S. "Gabby" Gabreski, known until his death in 2002 as "America's greatest living ace" after surpassing WW I ace Eddie Rickenbacker's record of enemy "kills" with 28.

Gabreski, a Pennsylvanian and son of Polish immigrants, was himself shot down and became a POW after asking to fly "one more mission" after D-Day in 1944 when he had completed enough missions to warrant a trip back to the U.S. His prison camp was liberated by Soviet soldiers in March 1945.

In 1942, when he first went to England, accounts in Gabreski's book, Gabby: A Fighter Pilot's Life, indicate Gabreski was frustrated at cooling his heels while his American unit was organized. So he won permission to join an RAF Polish Squadron, the 315th, and flew Spitfires in combat before joining the 56th.

Gabreski also later served during the Korean War, where he was credited with shooting down 7 Migs. He made the Air Force a career and held several wing commands before retiring and becoming president of the Long Island Railroad.

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