AidSpace Blog

A New Home for an Old Glove

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Who would think that a damaged, old leather glove, with the thumb badly torn, could be a valuable item? But if that damaged glove belonged to Luftwaffe pilot Günther Rall, with 275 aerial victories and the third highest scoring ace in aviation history, then it becomes an item of unique historic value. And now that item has found a home at the National Air and Space Museum. In addition to the glove, the Museum also received Rall’s diary from 1942, documenting his actions at the Eastern Front, and a portrait of the pilot in summer 1945, created by another prisoner of war, Wolfgang Willrich, during their time in captivity in Fouquainville, France.

Painted portrait of Gunther Rall.

This portrait of Günther Rall as prisoner of war was painted by fellow prisoner, Wolfgang Willrich, in early summer 1945 in France.

Günther Rall was born in 1918 at the end of World War I and became a pilot with the Luftwaffe in 1938. During World War II, he fought in the skies over France, Great Britain, Yugoslavia, Greece, Russia, and later in the air defense over Germany against the American and British strategic bombardment campaign—always flying the Messerschmitt Bf 109. In November 1941, after 37 air victories, Rall was shot down for the first time and rescued by a German tank crew, his back broken in three places. Told that he would never be able to walk (let alone fly) again, Rall returned to combat just one year later.

In April 1944, Major Günther Rall was made Group Commander of the 2nd group of Fighter Wing 11, defending the skies over Germany against the overwhelming powers of the Allied Air Forces. At that time, the Allies had seven to 10 times more aircraft in the air over Germany than Germany did. Even worse, U.S. pilots had about 400 flight hours of training when they were sent into battle, while German pilots, due to lack of instructors and fuel, had almost none. Many of these young, inexperienced German pilots were shot down before their 10th sortie.

Messerschmitt Me 109 airplane

The Museum’s Messerschmitt Bf 109. Image: Dane Penland, National Air and Space Museum

On May 12, 1944, Rall led his group against an American air raid. His pilots flew two different aircraft. Some flew Me 109s with engines equipped with special chargers to allow them to reach altitudes of 8,000 to 10,000 meters where they were able to attack the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolts that protected Allied bomber units. Other pilots flew Fw 190s and attacked the lower-flying U.S. bomber aircraft. Rall shot down two Thunderbolts, but then other P-47s arrived. One of them fired at Rall’s Me 109. Bullets from a .50 caliber machine gun hit his cockpit, his engine, his cooler, and his left hand at the control stick, shooting his thumb. The glove donated to the Museum is the very glove worn by Rall during that engagement, and it clearly shows the damage from the machine gun round. Günther Rall bailed out and landed in a field. He was taken to a hospital and his left thumb amputated. Due to the onset of infections he was not able to fly for months.

Günther Rall’s glove with the torn thumb

Günther Rall’s glove with the torn thumb, result of the air attack on May 12, 1944.

The air battles of that day marked the beginning of a systematic U.S. offensive against the German fuel industry, one of the weakest links in the German war economy. The 8th and 9th USAAF with 886 bombers, and 980 accompanying fighters, flew attacks against refineries and production sites for synthetic fuel in the heart of Germany. Facing heavy German resistance, the U.S. lost 46 bombers and 12 fighters. On the German side, 28 pilots were killed and 26 wounded that day, among them was the entirety of Rall’s group. Later, Albert Speer, Reich Minister of Armament and War Production, would declare: “On that day, the fate of Germany’s technical warfare was decided.”

In November 1944, Rall returned to active duty. He spent the last months of the war with Fighter Wing 300, which mostly sat idly due to lack of fuel and supplies. At the end of the war, after 621 missions flown, 275 confirmed aerial victories, shot down eight times, and wounded three, Rall became a prisoner of war of the American Forces. Released in August 1945, he had to adjust to a civilian life and became a representative for the Siemens Company. In 1956, he joined the newly established Armed Forces of the Federal Republic in the rank of a Major of the Luftwaffe. He was put in charge of modifying the F-104 fighter jet for Luftwaffe’s requirements and worked his way to the position of Luftwaffe’s Inspector General, a rank he held from 1971 to 1974. That year, he was made the German military representative in NATO’s Military Committee at Brussels, with the rank of a Lieutenant General.

Photograph portrait of Günther Rall

Rall as Luftwaffe’s Inspector General in the early 1970s. Image: German Federal Archive, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J1112-0206-004 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

In 1977, Günther Rall visited a meeting of U.S. fighter pilots. While inquiring about the 1944 incident where he lost his thumb, he learned that he had encountered the notorious “Wolf Pack” on that fateful day in 1944, the 56th Fighter Group under Col. Hubert Hub Zemke. Zemke’s pilots were by far the most successful American fighter group in the European theatre, and Zemke himself was known as a supreme tactician. From that meeting, a close friendship developed between Rall, Hub Zemke, Zemke’s 2nd Lieutenant Robert “Shortie” Rankin, and other U.S. pilots. During his visits to the U.S., Rall frequently gave talks about his life as a pilot, often together with U.S. pilots like Hub Zemke or Chuck Yeager. In May 1996, he joined the Gathering of Eagles at the Museum and talked about his war time experiences. In 2003, he was made an honorary member of the prestigious Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and one year later published his memoirs, Mein Flugbuch [edited by Kurt Braatz, Moosburg/Germany: Edition NeunundzwanzigSechs]. In them, the third-highest scoring ace of all time said:

“Nothing is further from my mind than to join into the praise for the last Knights of the Air which you hear so often when people talk about World War II fighter pilots. The sober truth […] is that we fought each other for life and death, although we wanted nothing but to live, and that these fights became the more relentless the longer this terrible war lasted. […] War is not the continuation of politics with other means, but an infamy; it is the utter failure of political action.”

Photograph portrait of Günther Rall

Günther Rall (center) at the Museum during a National Air and Space Society lecture in May 1996.

Günther Rall died in 2009. The Museum plans to incorporate his glove, his diary, and his portrait in a new exhibition on World War II.

Evelyn Crellin is the curator for European Aviation in the Museum’s Aeronautics Department

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Well, is it Flak Bait or Flak-Bait?

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As the curator for the Museum’s Martin B-26B Marauder, I’ve become obsessed with the proper way to designate the name given to it by its first pilot Jim Farrell in August 1943. It all centers on the pesky use of a hyphen. Is it Flak Bait or Flak-Bait? You see both in archival documents, historical references and books, and all over the internet. Which one is correct? In my quest to get that one detail right, I learned that the use of the term “flak bait” referred to more than just the name of the World War II, medium bomber that is now undergoing preservation treatment in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

American aircrew that were going into combat would describe themselves as “flak bait,” meaning they were at the mercy of enemy anti-aircraft artillery. “Flak,” which was short for the German fliegerabwehrkanone, or literally “flyer defense cannon,” was the primary threat to bomber crews over their targets. U.S. Army Air Forces Ninth Air Force medium bomber crews, specifically those flying the B-26 Marauder, adopted that name collectively for themselves as they risked their lives over Nazi-occupied Europe.

Two Marauders in flight with black flak bursts

The black splotches that you see in this 1944 image of two B-26s over Germany are flak bursts. The bigger one in front of the lower Marauder is especially frightening because it is very close to the B-26 from which this photograph was taken. Image: Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, NASM 9A12291

Blue book cover

Devon Francis’ 1948 classic book Flak Bait captures the story of the Marauders and the crews that flew them during World War II.

Inside page of book

Francis’ book includes the history of the Ninth over Europe and the Museum’s artifact in particular.

At least three other American aircraft went into battle over Europe with the name Flak Bait in World War II. A Douglas C-47 Dakota in the 437th Troop Carrier Group of the Ninth was one. Lt. Bill Barlow of the 353rd Fighter Group in the Eighth Air Force named his Republic P-47D Thunderbolt Flak Bait because it always came back from a mission with a few holes somewhere on the airframe. I also found one mention of an Eighth Air Force Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress that carried the name.

Does anyone have a personal connection with these aircraft, have any more details, or know of any other World War II aircraft that flew with the name Flak Bait?

How did the Museum’s B-26 get its name? Pilot Jim Farrell took inspiration from the nickname his brother gave to Boots the family dog back home, “Flea Bait,” and adapted it to reflect the combat environment over Western Europe.

Inside page of book

The Museum’s Martin B-26B Marauder Flak-Bait. Image: Eric Long, Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, NASM-SI-97-15363

With the approval of the crew, Farrell took those two words and sketched them popping out of a flak burst. Squadron artist Ted Simonaitis painted the now iconic nose art in yellow, red, and white on the left forward fuselage. See the narrow hyphen between “Flak” and “Bait?” While combat crews rightly called themselves “flak bait” and there were other aircraft that carried the name, there is only one Flak-Bait, the airplane that flew more missions than any other American aircraft during World War II.

Jeremy Kinney is a curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

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Volunteers Help Keep Museum Objects Clean

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When visitors enter our Museum, many are awed by the number of artifacts that are on display. We’re often asked, “How do you manage to keep everything clean?” That is a terrific question, especially since there are more than 6,000 artifacts on display at any time on the floor or hanging overhead, with more being added each year.

Cleaning and inspecting the artifacts is critical to preserving the Museum’s collection. Dust is one of our biggest challenges since it can affect the condition of the artifacts that are on display. It accumulates on the artifacts and retains moisture from the surrounding air which can cause corrosion. Airborne salts from road treatments, abrasive particles from soil, and organic material from visitors all add to the mix. If left alone, the dust and other dirt can permanently damage the artifacts by staining, etching, or corroding surfaces. It is a continual concern for the Museum since the care of the collection is the highest priority.

To combat this, the Museum has three sources for inspecting the artifacts and keeping them clean: a small contracting team, a small full-time crew, and a team of about 18 volunteers comprised of docents and visitors services personnel. The teams work behind the scenes early in the morning at the Museum in Washington, DC and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia to inspect and clean each artifact on a rotating cycle. Most artifacts are inspected and cleaned about every three to four months. The results are cataloged by the cleaning crews so that a history is maintained for each cleaning session, and the records become a part of the Museum’s official archives.

Volunteer vacuums wing of Wright Flyer.

Volunteer David Boggs carefully removes dust from the replica 1908 Wright Flyer in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Close-up photo of volunteer using a brush and vacuum on artifact.

Volunteer Gary Connor uses a soft brush and vacuum to remove layers of dust from the spar assembly for the Apollo Telescope Mount. The telescope mount is now on display in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Four volunteers clean the underside of an artifact.

Volunteers Bob Thompson, Bob Monday, Larry Grube and Scott Willey clean the Apollo Telescope Mount Collar.

In addition to cleaning, the crews photograph problems or damage that they encounter to ensure that the collections staff and curators can get a glimpse of the problem and determine if it’s something that needs their immediate attention. The photos also provide a pictorial history of any changes to previously reported conditions. The volunteer cleaning team also helps in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar by assisting the conservation and restoration staff in preparing artifacts for display at the Museum in Washington, DC and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

The crews spend nearly 2,000 hours each year cleaning the artifacts. This helps the Museum avoid additional costs. It is also a source of great personal satisfaction to the cleaning teams — they realize that they are trusted to care for some of the nation’s most historic air and space artifacts and that they are contributing to their preservation and longevity for future generations to enjoy.

David Burns is a volunteer at the National Air and Space Museum.

April is National Volunteer Appreciation Month. The National Air and Space Museum has more than 900 volunteers! Find out more about volunteering with us.



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Gravitational Waves Face to Face

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On February 11 of this year, when scientists announced that they had detected gravitational waves, I was among the thousands of people who were so excited we couldn’t sit still. This news was literally Earth-shaking! Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time, and they’re created by events like the collision of massive objects, such as black holes.

So of course, being an astronomy educator, I took the first opportunity to talk about this news with visitors at the Museum. The day after the announcement, I set up our black holes Discovery Station, which uses a rubber sheet to demonstrate how space-time gets warped by massive objects. I created my own “gravitational waves” by tapping on the rubber sheet to make it vibrate, like ripples on a pond.

Shauna Edson at the black holes Discovery Station

Astronomy educator Shauna Edson at the black holes Discovery Station, which illustrates how massive objects warp space-time. Photo: Nischal Amin

Midway through the afternoon, a man came up to the Discovery Station and was interested to see that I was connecting the activity to the previous day’s big news. This visitor turned out to be University of Oregon physicist Dr. Robert Schofield, a member of the LIGO science team that had made the discovery! I spent 20 fascinated minutes asking him tons of questions, and his animated explanations were nothing short of amazing. How often do you get that kind of opportunity?!

Little did I know that the best part of the conversation would come at the end. Standing there in the Explore the Universe gallery, which tells the story of humans and astronomy, Dr. Schofield said that he grew up here in Washington, DC, and he used to be one of the kids running around these exhibits. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “It was this Museum, and people like you, that grew my interest in science.”

WOW. That is the education equivalent of winning the Olympic gold medal. What a great example of the impact museums can have on people’s lives! Dr. Schofield went on to describe the value of seeing the “real thing” in person, and how as a physics student he would come to the Museum to study the instruments on display because details about the way an object was made, and how it was used, don’t all come through in a picture or textbook. Those real-life observations were crucial throughout Dr. Schofield’s education as they helped him to fully understand the scientific principles that underlie everything he does now.

I was completely blown away by our conversation. Here’s a person whose research has changed the world, and he’s telling me that the work my colleagues and I do is what got him excited about science. That is the single most excellent thing that any educator can ever hope to hear.

I see hundreds of Museum visitors daily, usually for less than five minutes, when I’m running educational programs. I watch their eyes light up when they learn something really cool. I notice them pull out a phone to look up concepts we’ve been talking about. I smile as I recognize that their Museum visit, and their interaction with me, makes a difference for at least that moment. But I almost never get to follow up and find out what kind of long-term effect it has on their interests, career aspirations, or life paths. But on February 12, 2016, I got the rare gift of unequivocal validation that the work we do at the Museum really matters and can make a profound difference for someone. There is no greater reward than that!

The black holes Discovery Station is often set up in the Explore the Universe gallery, located on the first floor at the Museum in Washington, DC. You can also visit the black holes Discovery Station this weekend at our annual Explore the Universe Day, Saturday, April 9 from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm.

 Shauna Edson is an astronomy educator at the National Air and Space Museum.

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Put Me In, Coach!

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It’s April and baseball is back!!! Americans’ love of baseball can be found throughout the National Air and Space Museum Archives’ collections. Members of the military visited baseball teams to compare equipment and even demonstrated the flexibility of spacesuits on the ball field. Baseball teams began to charter their own flights between games. And everywhere, even on a military base in India, you could find a baseball game!

The employees of Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation in Minnesota, in addition to building up to 15 gliders a day for the war effort, developed their own recreational league, which included bowling, basketball, hockey, and, of course, softball teams.

NAC Softball team pose

Say “Pickle!” Members of a Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation softball team pose, circa 1945. Image: NASM 9A12175-108-A

These teams took their league play quite seriously and the employee newsletter Tow Lines published the standings in each issue. The John E. Parker Collection only holds a few issues of Tow Lines, but the August 1943 issue provides insight into the corporation’s softball league. The best team that year was the Stores Gremlins, with a 7-1 record and a .426 team batting average that would put Ted Williams to shame.

NAC Softball team members after a game

The ball isn’t getting past these players. Members of a Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation softball team pose after a game, circa 1945. Image: NASM 9A12175-108-B

The names of the other teams in the league were the Bombers (5-3 record), Accounting (3-5), Question Marks (3-5), and Final Assembly (3-5). The plant affiliations of several of the teams can be inferred from their names, but the Question Marks remain a, well, you know.

All of the plant’s recreational teams were provided for by proceeds from candy vending machines. The newsletter cautioned, “Don’t treat ’em too rough, boys, if you enjoy your game of softball.” But candy was definitely not the post-game refreshment of choice.

NAC Softball team members celebrate after a game

Nothing like a pipe and a beer after a good game of softball. Members of a Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation softball team celebrate, circa 1945. Image: NASM 9A12175-109-A

Get your cold drinks, hot dogs, and Cracker Jack and enjoy this season of baseball!

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the Museum’s Archives Department. In addition to her many sports posts, she has been chronicling life at the Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation.

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