For a dedicated group of Air Force veterans, working at McChord’s Heritage Center is ... A labor of love

  • Published
  • By Tyler Hemstreet
  • 62nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

The McChord Heritage Center not only connects visitors to decades of rich aviation history, but it also connects them to those who work behind the scenes.

Retired Air Force Col. Herman Wood is an expert on the legacy of the enlisted pilot. Mr. Wood, who is an 87-year-old docent at the museum, was a member of the Air Force's last enlisted pilot training class in 1942. He now works two or three days a month at the museum sharing his love for aviation and his knowledge of the enlisted pilot era with visitors.

"What I find fascinating are the people you meet," he said. "Everyone has a story."

Mr. Wood's story is rather fascinating itself.

Throughout his 33-year Air Force career, he was stationed at McChord twice. He spent most of his flying hours in transport planes such as the C-47 Skytrain, C-46 Commando and C-54 Skymaster. After retiring at age 53, Mr. Wood attended an enlisted pilot's reunion in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he got the motivation to get out and tell the story of the enlisted pilot.

It was then he started gathering information and preparing segments for the exhibit that now sits at the museum.

The display contains everything from information on the first enlisted pilot (Vernon Burge in 1912) to the group's combat exploits in the P-38 Mustang during World War II.

It's all very close to Mr. Wood's heart.

"There's a lot of history in this display," he said, standing in front of one of the intricate boards at the museum. "This exhibit was a labor of love."

While the exhibits on the inside of the museum strike a chord with Mr. Wood, it's the life-size exhibits that sit outside the museum walls that have touched another group.

As 85-year-old Glenn Morgan thumbs through a tattered binder filled with pages of handwritten names and addresses, he reflects on the long history of the B-18 Bolo restoration project at McChord.

The binder is filled with nearly 20 years worth of volunteers who have helped in one way or another on the project. Many passed away as the aircraft began to take shape, but one dedicated group of around 20 retired Army Air Core, Air Force, Navy and civilian die-hards have seen the project through to its final stages.

They gather every Wednesday in Building 301 to socialize and put the finishing touches on the B-18, which will soon be on display for all visitors to see.

"It's very laid back," said 72-year-old hangar chief Chuck Bowen. "There are no deadlines. You take your time and do what you can."

The close knit group that has stayed with the project since McChord received the B-18 in October of 1986 admits they don't try and tackle quite as much in a day now that the aircraft is nearing completion, but it still gives them a reason to get out of the house.

"This keeps us away from the TV and off the bar stool," said Don Lemon, 85.

Others in the group say their wives are happy to get them out of the house for one day of the week.

"It's good therapy for us," said 88-year-old Herb Tollefson. "You have to have a need when you get old."

Several factors keep the group going strong; their love for the service, their love for the job and their strong desire to finish a big restoration project that many of them have spent thousands of hours on.

"We're all prop guys," Mr. Tollefson said. "If it makes a lot of noise and drips oil, then we love it."

Mr. Bowen said each aircraft part they aren't able to salvage from somewhere on the base or an outside party, they have to fabricate from scratch. The shop contains pages of drawings and microfiche from the factory to give them a place to start.

"We just take a picture out of the book and go for it," Mr. Bowen said.

But hunting down pieces and vendors to help donate the work is part of the excitement.

"We've had an awful lot of help with this plane," said Mr. Tollefson, who once spent weeks searching for someone to craft pieces for the B-18 windshield.

Carl Schuler, 83, who used to work in the civilian sector at McChord, even combed a 1942 crash site of a B-18 south of McChord on five different occasions looking for parts.
The little challenge of finding parts and services gives them all more drive, Mr. Tollefson said.

The group also prides itself on its ability to use all the resources on base to help in doing jobs on the plane. Since many in the group worked together in civil services for so long, they still know many of the shop foremen -- who can always be counted on to donate some time or help craft a piece for the project.

Although six of the 20 in the group haven't lived to see the complete restoration of the
B-18, Mr. Tollefson said it has played a huge role in their lives. After one of the group's members who now lives in a retirement home was given a plaque by McChord for working 20 years on the project, Mr. Tollefson said he "darn near broke down and cried."