I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more than a few ghosts hanging around Hangar One. It is, after all, not your typical museum. It is a work in progress. Parts of planes are always coming in or going out of the large hangar doors. And on a weekday afternoon in March, the place is so quiet, it’s eerie. I hear the door slam behind me. The sound of my feet on the concrete floor. The rustle of my coat as I get my camera ready to shoot.
I hear a sound of movement and look about me. It’s coming from atop an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet -– the kind Tom Cruise piloted in the movie Top Gun. I look closer. It is a gray tabby cat. I later learn that his name is Huey. He sees me as well and decides he must take it upon himself to show me around the place. And, I am very grateful for his company because walking into the Naval Aviation Museum on a weekday afternoon in March is a walk back in time – war time. And you can feel the history wrap itself around you.
Hangar One is located at the Cape May County Airport and has been restored to honor the 43 airmen who perished while training there during WWII. It was designed for one hundred and eight officers, twelve hundred men, and seventy-two planes. I can almost hear the strains of The Andrew Sisters singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
As you might suspect, it is a museum mostly composed of fighting planes and helicopters. They aren’t replicas but the real deal. Planes that have seen great tragedies. Planes that have caused great tragedy. Planes that have made history. Planes that have changed history.
The Civil Aeronautics Bureau built the site early in the summer of ’42. They approved construction of three runways to be used by the Army and Navy for use in the war. Before it was turned over to the Cape May County Board of Freeholders to be used as a county airport, Naval Air Station Wildwood (NASW) served its country for 36 months. Except for the two hangars and the control tower buildings, everything else was auctioned, dismantled, and reassembled at other locations in Cape May County.
Huey stops by a glass display. I look in it and find that NASW not only trained pilots but served as the overseers of a POW camp for German prisoners. The walls are decorated with old WWII posters. A woman is pictured with the caption “I Want You For the Navy.” A snappy young sailor is pictured holding a little boy’s hand with the caption “Heritage.” A Rosy the Riveter kind of a gal is pictured – a soldier is in the background – the caption reads “The girl he left behind is still behind him. She’s a WOW” (and in small print) “Woman Ordinance Worker.”
I then follow Huey into a room filled with the memories left by those who were enlisted and those who were prisoners here at NASW.
There are pictures of the POWs and their guards. Guard Jerry Gentilini is pictured by the Prisoner of War Convoy. The picture is dated 1944. And I wonder is there any relation to the Gentilini family that owns Gentilini Ford in Woodbine. The German POW Camp was located in what is now the Cape May County Mosquito Commission on Rt. 47. Four German POWs are pictured digging utility drenches, or picking tomatoes for local farmers.
To the right as you walk in, there is a replica of an army office complete with filing cabinets, a desk and a teletype machine. There are pictures of young men in uniform waiting to be shipped out, waiting to fly out. There are pictures of Cape May during the war years. We are told that dances were held at the Navy-operated Admiral Hotel, Convention Hall on the Boardwalk, Arnold’s Café Club, and the Jackson Street USO and that the Liberty and the Pier Theaters were gathering places for off-duty navy personnel.
And the memories of some of the Navy men and women who served at NASW have been written out so others can get a glimpse of what life must have been like then.
Billy Bush remembers that “It was not unusual for some of the members to thrill the spectators (at the Wildwood Boardwalk) by buzzing the theme park and performing dramatic maneuvers. Wildwood was where the action was. Cape May was more reserved. Perhaps that’s why Jim McGee and I usually went to Cape May.”
“While the wives were at Wildwood or Cape May beaches – pilots would do some ‘flat hatting’ flying ten or so feet off the waves, two hundred yards off the beach, past the bathers.” Tim Hutchinson
“Since the entire east coast was on a strictly enforced brown-out, no light visible from the sea was allowed…for night flying, which was an essential part of pilot training. Night flying was always a nail biter for all concerned. The service runway was outlined with ‘smudge pots,’ about 30 feet apart, enough to see to land and take off but hardly visible seaward. When the last aircraft landed everyone breathed easier.” Larry Smith
“The entire class was awarded a three week leave upon graduation, but those were the days when travel was by bus or train. There wasn’t time for me to get back (home) to California and back across the whole country and have any time to visit, so I saved my three weeks for later and came directly to my assignment. That is how I can to be the first WAVE in Ship’s Company, in support of the CASU-24 Unit at Wildwood Naval Air Station, and remained the only WAVE at the base for two whole weeks. During my first two weeks, I could not bring myself to go to meals at the enlisted mess hall. I just couldn’t. All the sailors treated me with courtesy, really, but being the only woman amidst those hundreds of men was just too much.” Imogene Gluck
“You fly in formation, you climb up, I guess it’s about 12,000 feet. And at 12,000 feet, they have a spot they’re supposed to aim at on the ground with a little miniature bomb. And they’d pull a 70-degree dive, basically straight down. And the plane, I mean, it jumps and bounced all over the place. It’s amazing, you wouldn’t believe it. But it’s a moving thing. When they pull out, if you’re not prepared and have never done it before, it just pushes you down in the seat. You pull, you get gray. You don’t black out, but you get grey [sic]…it was wild, it was interesting.” George Ashton
“Crash Crews were always on duty. They were headquartered in a building near the administration building. Fire engines and crash trucks were kept there. A flotilla of crash boats was located on the bay side ready to speed out in case a plane crashed in the water.” Bernard Graebener
Huey and I meander back into the hangar to look at the planes and helicopters. A thermonuclear bomb is on display. Lent to the museum from The National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, NM, it is a not too subtle reminder of how WWII finally ended.
“If you need any help or have any questions just call me.”
I must have jumped ten feet out of my skin. Was Huey talking or did I imagine someone talking? No, it looks like a person – a man. Let me try saying something.
“Where should I call you?”
“Just holler. I’ll hear you.”
Yes. I think he must be real. OK. Huey and I move over to the center of the museum and we seem to have entered the Vietnam War. I spend quite a while climbing into helicopters, looking into planes which I know darn well my legs would never have jammed into. Were all pilots 5-foot and under or just incredibly flexible?
I’m kind of coming to an end when the same man who spoke to me earlier pops around the corner. I suspect he’s the operation manager.
“Would you like to look inside this room? It’s locked because it’s still off season.”
He points to a man dressed in jungle camouflage. That’s a North Vietnamese solider, he tells me.
“Were you in Vietnam?”
“Thirteen months. 1968. I’d just turned 19. I was a gunrunner. That’s my helicopter The Huey. The cat was named after it.”
“What’s your name?”
I laugh. “Well, I’m not likely to forget that.”
“Yeah. My dad was a bartender.”
When we walk into the small room, I know. I just know that this is Tom Collins’ room.
“Whose uniform is that?”
“Mine. I created this room myself.”
“Where did you get all this stuff?” There are weapons, knives, other uniforms, helmets.
“Half of it’s mine. Some of it came from other guys who served.”
To the left, I see a photo album and a collection of letters from soldiers to their families back home.
“Where’d you get all these pictures?”
“I took them.”
“You had time to take pictures while you were hanging out of a helicopter getting shot at?”
”Yeah. We all took pictures. We had these little cameras.”
He shows me a photo of himself with his buddies. I flip through the album. I am struck by the beauty of some of the pictures – the beauty of the countryside. And I know that someone who would take such beautiful pictures must have carried within him a sense of forgiveness and understanding about war and the things people do in war.
“It’s really a beautiful country isn’t it? Have you been back?”
“No. I’d like to go back.”
“I was in the Tet Offensive,” he says very quietly.
He shows me The Huey. He shows me where he sat and how he hung out of the helicopter, strapped in by a long seat belt device. Huey went down 8 times, once with Tom Collins in it. The helicopter was still being used ten years later, Tom came to find out.
Sigh. I just want to hug Tom Collins. I want to go around and hug all the airplanes and all the helicopters. I’m a bit overwhelmed and feel I have to leave. But as I’m walking out the door, I run up to Tom Collins who is on some kind of crane-lifty thing. Anyway, whatever it is, he’s going up in the air and I want him to come back down.
“Hey? Wait a minute. How is it you happened to find the exact same helicopter you used? How did it find its way here?”
Turns out, he found it in a helicopter graveyard. The military uses old planes and helicopters and practices shooting them down to see how they can be improved. As fate would have it, Huey – the helicopter not the cat – was unscathed and Tom Collins put the wheels in motion to get it transported to the Naval Aviation Museum.
I say one last goodbye to Tom Collins and Huey, who has gotten bored with me and is back on his F-14 perch pretending he’s Tom Cruise.
I’m kind of choked up by everything I’ve seen and even as I write this, three weeks later, the same feelings wash over me. I could never come close to understanding what Tom Collins, Billy Bush, Imogene Gluck and all the others who fought in wars before and since lived through but that’s why we have a museum like this so we can try and understand and so we never forget.
If you’ve got the time, plan a visit to the Naval Aviation Museum. It’s located in Erma on the grounds of the Cape May County Airport on Breakwater Road. You know what? Even if you don’t have the time, make the time. You won’t regret it. Maybe you’ll see some ghosts. I know they’re out there, somewhere.