Phil Heacock recently met a woman around 30 years old who asked him, “What’s World War II?”
Heacock couldn’t believe his ears. A woman who seemed to be intelligent, and probably in the middle to upper-middle class economically, hadn’t “heard of” WWII.
“The only reason you’re wearing pants right now is because of WWII,” said Jim Stewart, a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. Without the war, women would “be wearing a skirt, and you’d be in the fields and having babies. Period.
“Prior to the war, women didn’t go to work.”
Heacock and Stewart are among the dozens of volunteers at the National Museum of WWII Aviation, a local museum whose purpose is to educate people about WWII and to rebuild aircraft from that war to flying status.
Located northwest of and adjacent to the Colorado Springs Airport, the National Museum of WWII Aviation includes 20 acres of land that contain three hangars of historic artifacts and aircraft from World War II. All the items on display are authentic originals — flags, manuals, goggles, gear and more.
In one of the hangars, retired pilots, all still certified to fly, cheerfully perform work to restore WWII aircraft.
In yet another hangar, 65,000 square feet with in-floor heat, certified pilots and employees of Westpac Restorations painstakingly restore aircraft from the war.
Rivet by rivet.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires people who restore aircraft to be certified, Stewart said.
The museum is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays to the public. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are devoted to the Challenger Learning Center of Colorado program.
“One of our foot-stomping missions is education, STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] education,” Stewart said.
The museum partnered with the Challenger Learning Center, set up after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986. The center’s purpose is to engage school-age children in the excitement of space and flight. The center is located on Lexington Drive in north Colorado Springs.
“Eventually, we hope to get them on this campus,” Stewart said.
Originally, Westpac Restorations owner Bill Klaers planned to restore WWII aircraft, sell flights and build a conventional museum.
“We have taken that idea and moved it to a new level” in education, Stewart said. “It’s more than just going to look at airplanes and going home or just taking rides.”
What’s important is to teach people about the history of WWII, plus STEM and history education for children, he added. Schools don’t teach history, Stewart said.
“The Air Force Academy really doesn’t focus on history. They don’t teach about what happened during WWII because they don’t care and the K-12 system really doesn’t care,” Stewart said.
That missing component “is what we bring to this town,” he said. “Most kids think the world started with an iPhone.
“Kids in this town have no idea what aviation is all about, and this is an aviation town, with the Air Force Academy, Peterson Air Force Base,” Stewart said.
At the end of World War I, remaining aircraft were destroyed “and nothing was left over,” Stewart said.
After WWII, the aircraft mostly stayed where they had last landed. Whether it was Russia, Germany, Australia, they stayed there, for the most part.
“If they were on a ship, we pushed them off the side of the ship and they’re at the bottom of the ocean,” Stewart said. “We didn’t need them.”
For a short time, the aircraft were available to purchase from the U.S. government. Now, they are not.
Many of the aircraft were buried, including several in New Guinea, one of which Klaers is now restoring.
“He will take a piece of [junk] and turn it into a real airplane, a gorgeous airplane, an airplane that is in better condition than it was when it came off the line,” Stewart said. “And, it flies.”
To take a rusted-out aircraft from a burial spot in New Guinea and restore it to flying status “is something magic. That’s what Klaers does. That’s what his magic is,” Stewart said.
A Minnesota resident and WWII airplane collector wanted to bring his airplanes to a central location in the United States, Stewart said. His aircraft were in Wisconsin, California, South Carolina and Minnesota.
The man, who does not want his name published, came to Colorado Springs and inquired about leasing property at the airport. At the time, the maximum lease was only 10 years.
The airport manager at the time denied the Minnesota collector access to a long-term lease, so he went back to Minnesota, Stewart said.
Meanwhile, in Rialto, Calif., Klaers, a colleague of the Minnesota collector, faced eviction from his leased property at the Rialto Municipal Airport. The Rialto airport, east of Los Angeles near San Bernardino, was to be redeveloped.
The Minnesota collector urged Klaers to move to Colorado Springs.
So, Klaers rented 92 tractor-trailers to transport his collection and his work. In one load, for a Sky Raider, he was required to have a police escort, and the airplane was prohibited from traveling the interstate highway system, so they used state highways, Stewart said.
Klaers moved his family and those of his 13 employees to Colorado Springs.
“We went for a year without any declaration of what we were doing,” Stewart said. That year, volunteer aviators built the display cases and amassed the collections.
Stewart calls himself the “mother hen” of the effort. He said he is “totally interested in aviation,” although not particularly WWII aviation.
“I don’t have to fly one of these airplanes, but what I saw early on is: Here is a piece that’s missing in the U.S.,” he said. Having airplanes that are capable of flying differentiates the National Museum of WWII Aviation in Colorado Springs from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Stewart added.
One side of the 20 acres houses the nonprofit museum, while the other side houses the for-profit business, Westpac Restorations. Both sides are used for museum tourists and children from the Challenger program.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, killing about 2,400 Americans. After that disaster, the United States declared war on Japan. Following that action, Germany declared war on the United States, and WWII was in full swing for America.
The United States responded to Pearl Harbor by what came to be known as the Doolittle Raid, named for the commander, Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, a mere 131 days after Pearl Harbor.
Using a crane, the United States loaded 16 B-25 bombers aboard the carrier USS Hornet in a secret mission to bomb Japan. The bombers’ U.S. Army Air Corps pilots trained to take off within a distance of 300 feet, the Hornet’s available runway length.
The plan was for the Hornet to travel to within 450 miles of Japan. Close to that, the 16 aircraft took off and flew to select locations on mainland Japan and released their bombs. They dropped the explosives on oil storage centers, factories and military posts before flying on across the East China Sea. Those who did not bail out at sea after running short of fuel landed at various locations in China and the Soviet Union.
The Doolittle Raid raised American morale, which had sunk in despair after Pearl Harbor.
Recently, during a tour through the National Museum of WWII Aviation, an older man said he had been in the war. When asked what he did in the war, the man’s daughter said they’d answer that question after the tour.
“After the tour he said, ‘My name is Dick Cole, and I was Jimmy Doolittle’s copilot,’ ” Heacock said.
“He’s 98 and walked the whole tour and never said a word about the Doolittle Raid.”