My parents have been telling me I should visit the National U.S. Air Force Museum at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for ages. It’s understandable: I spent about two and a half years living and breathing WWII paratroopers, thanks to Band of Brothers. Planes have never been a particular interest of mine, but my parents wanted to share what they’ve enjoyed on previous visits (we have a wonderful photo of my mother posing in front of a bomber decorated with a gorgeous pinup, “Strawberry Bitch”). When I came back to Ohio for a visit over Labor Day weekend, we dropped off Gus at the dog spa, took the day and drove the 90 minutes to Fairborn.
My first surprise was how enthralled I was by the early airplanes. The turn-of-the-century flying machines and First World War dogfighters were works of art; I was particularly taken with the beautiful grain of the wood propellers. (In August, after wanting desperately to do it since I was five, I finally got to go whale-watching in Massachusetts; laugh if you want, but there was something about those early planes that reminded me of the humpbacks we saw. They were incredibly graceful, even if some of them were literally made of balsa wood.) Seeing those artifacts in the flesh always fills me with a sense of awe—it doesn’t take much to look at the crumpled goggles and high-laced boots and imagine the people who dared flight when it was a much more dangerous proposition.
On the other side of the hangar (one of three that comprise the museum) were the WWII exhibits. This was where I recognized more, and it was an equally astounding experience. Spitfires! Jump boots! Glenn Miller’s glasses! A C-47, like they used over Normandy! Painted bomber jackets! Whizz! Bang! Pow! It’s easy to get caught up in the sheer neatness of browsing through all these artifacts; the past is right in front of you, and real people used these objects as everyday parts of their lives. It’s a shivery, immersive feeling that I really treasure; it’s the same feeling I get reading oral histories. This compass helped someone stationed in the Aleutian Islands. This cap kept a pilot warm over North Africa. This lighter belonged to a kid from Brooklyn who died at 21.
After two hours, everyone started getting antsy and wanting some lunch. There was a lot of museum left, but I’d seen most of what I’d come for, and there was only a little of the WWII hangar still to see. I went ahead while my parents examined a greatcoat worn through the Battle of the Bulge. The end of the exhibit was all Pacific bombers, with bronzed and bare-chested mannequins unloading crates and checking on machinery. The last airplane was monstrous, a gleaming silver behemoth nearly the size of a commercial plane. After weaving through a number of placards, I finally stumbled on the identifying signage.
I was standing in front of Bockscar, the plane that dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki. A replica atomic bomb was on display near the loading bay. All my excitement at the other artifacts shriveled up. Seventy thousand casualties happened under this plane. And then an impossibly brutal war ended. How do you reconcile that? I had to leave as soon as I could. To go from that to the gift shop was an exercise in emotional whiplash. I don’t think the mood wore off even as we were driving home.
I wasn’t prepared to see Bockscar, and I wasn’t prepared to be so overwhelmed. My relationship with the other exhibit items had been very innocent and uncritical, which, in retrospect, did a disservice to us both. The bomber was presented in a completely heroic context, but I had other things on my mind: the testimonies of Japanese and Americans who lived through the bombings and their aftermaths, as told to Studs Terkel in “The Good War”; and an article I’d read last month, contending that Japan surrendered because of Soviet entry into the Pacific Theater, and claiming that the destruction of cities has never been a deterrent in modern warfare.
It’s easy to get comfortable with a narrative. We are taught in most American schools that bombing Nagasaki saved countless lives and spared the world a much-prolonged conflict. That might be true. But there’s always something new to understand by demanding discussion of past events.
We’ve been asking a lot of questions as we prepare for the anniversary of 9/11: What happened? What did we do? What do we know now? What could we do better? The questions we’re asking this week shouldn’t be an annual exercise, but a continual one. What we do with how we answer is too important for us to simply remember and not engage.