Out of context: Many exhibits at National Air Force Museum lack key details

September 9, 2021 12:40 am

The missile gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton. Part of the display implies that the U.S. nuclear system has been failsafe, one of several key omissions at the museum. – U.S. Air Force photo.

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton is stunning.

Where else can you stroll through the actual plane that flew FDR to Yalta in 1945, or the one that flew Harry Truman to meet an insubordinate Douglas MacArthur on Wake Island in 1950, or the one that flew Dwight D. Eisenhower to Switzerland in 1955 for the first peacetime meetings between the Soviets and Western powers? 

You can also walk through the plane that ferried JFK to Dallas in November 1963 — and brought back his lifeless body along with new President LBJ after Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet.

So much history made tangible — and that’s just in the Presidential Gallery far at the back of the museum’s four huge hangars. 

From cloth-covered planes pioneered by the Wrights at nearby Huffman Prairie to spaceships that descended from them, a breathtaking array of the technology that has dramatically reshaped modern life is on display in those yawning spaces.

Oh, and did I mention that admission is free?

When I first visited as a child, all was awe walking among primitive biplanes and sleek, supersonic fighters. 

But returning to Ohio a few years ago, much older and a little better read, I spotted some holes. Many of the captions accompanying the exhibits omitted key details, enough in some cases to be misleading.

I know. This is the Air Force’s museum and it would be silly to expect it to present a completely objective account of itself. 

I wasn’t very surprised, for example, when taking a tour of the Warren Harding Home in Marion that the guide didn’t say a word about how Harding’s was one of the most lustily corrupt presidencies in American history.

But with our country again awash in recrimination as it tumbles out of another lengthy war started without clear objectives, it seems important to point out a few of the things one branch of our military seems to miss about its own past:

“Any conceivable situation” — The museum’s Missile Gallery bristles with Minuteman, Jupiter and Titan missiles that were designed to carry warheads to distant continents. Their mere presence, it’s been hoped, makes the concept of a first nuclear strike unthinkable.

Off to the side is a model of a subterranean missile-control room. Air Force missileers have for generations sat in similar rooms awaiting an order they never want to receive: to initiate a nuclear strike halfway around the world. The logic, seemingly inescapable, is that once one side’s birds are in the air, others’ will be shortly and then it’s Armageddon.

Air Force personnel at a missile-launch site.
– Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal

The display makes the American system sound failsafe.

A caption reads: “Constant training and drills ensure that each crewman or ‘missileer’ knows what to do in any conceivable situation. A ‘personnel reliability program’ examines details of each crewmember’s personal life to make sure they are mentally fit to carry out the great responsibility of controlling nuclear weapons.”

But in his 2013 book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” Eric Schlosser describes in great detail an incident in which nobody knew what to do. On Sep. 18, 1980, a maintenance accident pierced the fuel tank of a Titan II missile in a silo near Damascus, Ark. 

As the tank spewed fuel, the missileers and their superiors struggled — some heroically — through the night to contain the situation. But the missile still exploded in its silo with great violence early the next morning. 

Fortunately, the 9-megaton warhead that was mounted on it was found nearby, undetonated.

Schlosser uses the disaster as a vehicle to explore several “broken arrow” accidents that have occurred during our nuclear history. Sources for his book, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, say we’ve avoided an accidental detonation only through blind luck or divine intervention

The Damascus disaster proved that missileers haven’t known what to do in any conceivable situation, and it’s a little disconcerting that the agency in charge of the missiles would airbrush that history away.

Operation Ranch Hand: As the U.S. scaled up its involvement in Vietnam, the Air Force decided it needed to spray defoliant on the jungle that communist fighters were using for cover. That would give bombing missions more precision.

“In 1965, Ranch Hand began using a very effective defoliant called Agent Orange, and the range of (bombing targets) grew considerably,” the display says, going on to describe the various missions Ranch Hand fliers undertook.

The display celebrates the obvious courage it took to fly low and slow into combat to achieve an important tactical objective. But it makes no mention of the epic toxicity of the spray, which sickened millions of Vietnamese and Americans, and which is estimated to have caused 150,000 birth defects among Vietnamese children.

Four-ship formation on a defoliation spray run. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Not only has the Veterans Administration been slow to treat American service personnel sickened by Agent Orange, its dioxin continues to poison Laotions along the former Ho Chi Minh Trail, although the United States hasn’t acknowledged it.

And while spraying defoliant might provide tactical advantage, dumping poison on people doesn’t seem to be a smart way to achieve the larger strategic objective of winning their “hearts and minds.” Even so, the collateral damage caused by Agent Orange isn’t mentioned in the museum’s display, much less the damage it did to the goals for which we paid so dearly.

Similar strategic blind spots seem to persist among policymakers and military planners. 

Writing last week in the Washington Post, combat interpreter Baktash Ahadi argued that because of such blind spots “the vast majority of Afghans have always viewed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils.”

Describing the scant contact Americans had with Afghans and their lack of cultural understanding, Baktash wrote, “U.S. forces turned villages into battlegrounds, pulverizing mud homes and destroying livelihoods. One could almost hear the Taliban laughing as any sympathy for the West evaporated in bursts of gunfire.”

These might be lessons to finally learn before we undertake our next military adventure.

Atomic bombings: It’s breathtaking that in the Air Force museum you can stand next to Bockscar, the plane that dropped an A-bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. And it’s overwhelming to think that two things so relatively small so profoundly impacted a city (a second-choice target) and likely the course of the war and the rest of history.

But a pretty big detail is missing.

The plane that dropped the Fat Man atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945
– U.S. Air Force.

A monument sign explains why President Harry Truman thought he had no choice but to use the wonder weapons that had just been invented in the New Mexico desert. Despite the German surrender and a string of bloody defeats, the Japanese Imperial government was stubbornly hanging on and the prospects for an Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland were grim.

“Estimates of Allied casualties ranged from 250,000 to a million with much greater losses to the Japanese,” the display says. It goes on to describe the thousands of aircraft the Japanese could use as Kamikaze bombs and it says that some soldiers were so fanatical that they were prepared to fight “with sharpened sticks, if necessary.”  

It adds that in a conventional attack, “whatever the Allied losses, the potential Japanese military and civilian casualties would have been staggering.”

Historian David McCullough has said that Truman knew he’d be judged harshly if he went forward with such a bloody invasion while sidelining a new weapon that promised to shorten the war. It’s a point I find persuasive.

But for all the Air Force museum makes of the potential for casualties if atomic bombs weren’t used, it doesn’t mention the actual casualties they caused. They were: Nagasaki — 64,000 (39,000 killed); Hiroshima — 135,000 (66,000 killed.)

I don’t know what to make of the fact that the branch that controls most of the nuclear arsenal doesn’t say in its museum how many were killed when the most primitive of those weapons were actually used. Somehow, I’d feel better if it did.

Mexican Border Patrol: Given the geopolitical import of many of the other displays, this might seem the least consequential. But given the pervasiveness of false information about the border down to the present day, this one deserves to be called out.

“Continued raids by Mexican bandits on American homesteads led to the creation of the United States Army Border Air Patrol in June 1919,” the display says, going on to describe the units operating in the harsh conditions of the desert Southwest.

This is, at best, a historical distortion.

A common sign in South Texas in the 1910s and 1920s. – Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

It’s true that after losing the support of President Woodrow Wilson, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa kidnapped and killed 18 Americans riding a Mexican train in January 1916. Then, on March 6, 1916, Villa’s forces raided Columbus, N.M., killing 19 more and torching the town.

Wilson sent Gen. John J. Pershing and 10,000 troops on a punitive expedition in response.

It’s also true that there had been some raids from Mexico, but “Fatalities directly linked to the raids were surprisingly small; between July 1915 and July 1916 some thirty raids into Texas produced only twenty-one American deaths, both civilian and military,” the Texas State Historical Association writes on its website.

Less well known is that the Texas Rangers conducted an orgy of lawless carnage, killing an estimated 300, according to testimony before the Texas Legislature in 1919 — testimony that led to some reform. The Rangers’ depredations against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans at the border were bad enough that they were the topic in 2016 of a major exhibition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.

Also, when it speaks of raids by “Mexican bandits” across the Rio Grande, the Air Force museum forgets that it’s referring to territory that no less an authority than Ulysses S. Grant believed was stolen from Mexico.

“For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the (annexation), and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation,” Grant, who served in the Mexican-American War as a lieutenant, wrote in his memoir.

The general who won the Civil War later added that the “Southern rebellion was largely an outgrowth of the Mexican war.” 

Even now, false claims of criminality by people crossing the Mexican border are prompting enforcement missions of dubious merit.

Given that, the U.S. Air Force Museum could, perhaps, choose more neutral language in describing its mission there. After all, what’s the point of trying to remember the past if not to learn from it?



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.