By 1940, the U.S. was preparing for the inevitable war with Japan and Germany. At that time the new Army Air Corps consisted of a little over 25,000 people and a mere 4,000 aircraft. Then the Army designated Hunter field as home base for its new light bomber training base. Hunter Field was built in 1927, just as commercial aviation was becoming popular around the country. The Army’s new organization was named the 8th Air Force, soon to become “The Mighty Eighth Air Force.”
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war, the base continued to grow. Early in 1942, 8th Air Force units were on their way to England, ready to take on the mission of bringing down Hitler’s forces in Europe. Their bombing missions took on Nazi troop locations and strategic resourcing sites (like factories) in France, the low countries, and Germany. At its peak strength, the 8th Air Force supported forty heavy bomber groups, plus fighter groups and other units. More than 350,000 airmen served with the 8th Air Force during WWII.
Several of the Girls Who Stepped Out of Line have ties to the Mighty 8th Air Force. Its museum is located near the Air Force’s origins in Pooler GA, a suburb of Savannah. There are plaques and memorials to every single bomber group within the legendary World War II Air Force – known as the greatest air armada in history. These include the 303rd Bomber group – “Hells Angels,” commanded by Colonel Bill Rader, who would later marry Major Stephanie Czech, one of the OSS’ premier spies. Bill and Stephanie met during the war on a blind date in London, while Bill was on a pass from his base in Molesworth and Stephanie was working out of the OSS London office. They clicked at first sight, even though Bill liked to tell his friends he picked her up on a street corner.
Just a little over fifty miles away – at a bomber base in Cheddington, another pilot spent his off-duty hours writing long letters to a woman he’d never met. His buddy’s fiancé, stationed at a top-secret Navy site in Dayton Ohio asked her friends to write to the pilot, who wasn’t getting much mail. Shorty. Ed ‘Shorty’ Robarts was a B-24 pilot who flew 18 missions with the 15th Air Force in Italy before his transfer to the 8th Air Force in England. There he completed another twenty-four missions with the 44th Bomber Group, “The Flying Eightballs.” A few of the women wrote him a few letters, but one kept on writing. Betty Bemis was another Girl Who Stepped Out of Line; she was a U.S. Navy WAVE working on the highly classified ‘Project Ultra.’
Betty and Ed were pen pals for more than 48 months during the war years. When Ed was reassigned stateside in December 1944, the first thing he did was give Betty a call. The two finally met in person over Easter in 1945. Three days later he asked her to marry him and they were wed a few months later, just after VE Day, when the war ended in Europe.
The couple were very fond of the 8th Air Force Museum, watching it be built from the ground up. Later, they both volunteered there for nearly 20 years. Ed passed away in August 2009. His remains are interred now in the columbarium near the Chapel of Fallen Angels, located on the museum grounds. Betty continued to volunteer for many years, feeling closer to her husband, just by being there. She often visits the columbarium and the chapel.
The Chapel of Fallen Angels was built in 2002, appealingly designed to resemble an English country chapel, funded by the donations of individual veterans and groups. Like all English chapels it has an east-west orientation with the front door facing west and the alter centerpiece window facing east. The simplicity of design is deeply affecting in its simplicity and its welcome. The plain pews were acquired from Jones County, PA. They were hand hewn in the 19th century and all other furnishings in the chapel are also antiques.
The series of stained-glass windows attract the eye, their light deep and almost otherworldly. All windows were produced by Aurora Glass in Savannah, designed by artist, Jon Erikson.
The centerpiece windows behind the altar were gifted by the 96th Bomber Group, duplicating the original windows from their wartime chapel near the 96th home airbase in Snetterton-Heath, UK. Airmen from the 96th flew 321 missions in B17 ‘Liberator’ aircraft during the war. During the first five months of 1944, they had the highest loss rate of all U.S. bomber units in the 8th Air Force. The dedication on this window reads, “In memory of comrades who gave their lives in the cause of freedom. We have not forgotten.”
This sentiment of wartime veterans remembering their comrades is repeated at the front entrance to the chapel. A plaque there reads: “Dedicated to those who have served in the Eighth Air Force for the cause of Freedom and Liberty. Realized through the vision of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society. Within this chapel lives the memory of those airmen of the Mighty Eighth Air Force who gave their lives for their country.”
The museum itself is expansive, covering more than 90,000 square feet. It explores the origins of the Army Air Corps effort at Hunter Field, deployment to Britain, training, missions and has a myriad of specific exhibits, including those on downed pilot evacuation routes, safe houses, and of course, the manufacture and technical capabilities of the planes themselves. There are several within the museum, and others outside on the grounds.
The museum also includes displays on the Tuskegee Airmen and the Womens Air Service Pilots (WASP). Another Girl Who Stepped Out of Line is Capt. Ola Mildred Rexroat, the only Native American woman pilot to serve in the WASP.
A visit to this incredible museum is more than worth the while for any visitor – to see and understand the enormity of the air war and its incredible successes at a critical time in our history – it is indeed mighty and amazing.
Learn more about the The National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force at https://www.mightyeighth.org/.
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