Often when I am going through the collection at the Virginia Aviation Museum I sometimes feel as though I’m on a treasure hunt. Just the other week I opened a box to find World War II memorabilia from one man who was stationed in New Guinea. The box was complete with a hunting knife with leather case that strapped to the leg, aviator sunglasses, old chocolate rations and even a black and white photograph of the young man’s girlfriend tucked into a leather-bound notebook. Moments like these are what makes a curator’s heart beat wildly!
It is often the stories behind the objects are what make them so interesting. In the collection of the Virginia Aviation Museum there are many leather bombardier jackets, some with squadron insignia, some with skull-shaped zipper pulls, some with pilot licenses tucked into a pocket, and so on. But two jackets in the collection caught my attention for the harrowing stories of the men who wore them and the fact that the jackets got to go along for the ride!
Check out the above jacket- F. Mark Johnson of Glen Allen, Virginia wore this while flying a P-51 Mustang with the 8th Air Force, 355th Fighter Group, 354th Fighter Squadron. During World War II he was stationed in Steeple Morden, England. Once, after a mission to bomb German V-2 rocket plants, his engine failed and he had to bail out over the North Sea. He was wearing this jacket when he made his leap into the cold waters. Fortunately, he survived the crash and was issued a replacement jacket, which now too is in the collection of the Virginia Aviation Museum.
Philip W. Root, Jr., a native Richmonder who began his pilot training in Savannah, Georgia, owned this second jacket. Once, while learning to fly a B-24 Liberator during training, him and his crew had to bail out over the rural fields of Georgia. The plane had a fuel leak fire that caused his Liberator to explode into pieces. Root jumped out of the plane- but quickly realized that his parachute would not release. He dropped for several thousand feet while struggling with the device until he opened it manually and safely landed. With the aircraft in pieces, he was shocked when a young girl came up to him after the crash, holding his perfectly intact jacket that he had last seen draped across the back of his seat. It had somehow flown clear of the explosion and landed nearby! Root and this jacket went on to fly 31 missions over Europe until the war’s end.
I’m always excited when I find an object in the collection that has a wonderful story attached. It is amazing to hold something that someone wore while they were high over the North Sea, or over the farms of Georgia, and know that they were lucky enough to bring this item back home with them.
What types of neat things have you found on your own treasure hunts?