High Desert Hangar Stories: Reflections on the P-38 Lightning, and inspiring new generations to love history

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
I was thinking back today on the many wonderful experiences I have had in my life, especially my experiences with one particular plane and its crews and pilots.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning will always have a special place in my heart. It alone opened up numerous doors, connecting me to many of the great adventures and people I would meet in my adult life. The P-38 Lightning would help define who I would become as a historian and activist when it came to sharing the history of the Greatest Generation and what they meant to the American patchwork quilt of patriots and heroes.

I was a member of the P-38 National Association for over two decades and served two terms as its president. It was during a time when a difficult transition was taking place, as the shrinking membership of World War II combat veterans were reaching out to the Baby Boomer generation to fill the shoes of those who flew the planes in combat. New blood was needed to carry on the legacy and traditions of the special men and women that formed a bond with that legendary fighter. At a luncheon at the Proud Bird Restaurant down by LAX, the combat pilots voted me in as the first non-combat pilot to serve on their board of directors, along with Ron Smith, a Lockheed employee from a different generation. It was the first real step of facing an uncertain future for an organization that was made up mostly of World War II veterans and their families.

P-38 pilot Dick Bong and his wife Marge: America’s number one Ace in World War II. (Courtesy photograph)

At first there was some push back by some of the old school membership. The realists in the organization countered with the fountain of youth analogy and stated to the old school that if they knew where that fountain was, please share — but until that happens, we need to stick with “plan B,” and look to hand the organization’s leadership off to future generations.

With conventions, events and air shows being some of the most popular places to interact with future generations, the veterans would eagerly show up and spend the days speaking of heroics and sacrifice to any ear that would listen or show an interest. Many times as I looked on, I felt as if I was no longer just the president or board member — I pretty much felt like a public relations manager for a major celebrity. I was blessed so many times to see the magic moments when generations would connect, the difference in ages and lifestyles would melt away, and the coming together as one with shared passion and history over a beloved old World War II fighter and its pilots filled the gap between the young and the old.

As the years passed and the number of the old-timers dwindled down to just a very few, the memories of long road trips and late night hours in hotel bars, reflecting on the many stories that had us all in tears at times (but also had us laughing), makes the journey just that much more poignant, as those moments will only be memories that will play out when something sparks a thought about a subject or event I had a personal attachment to with a Veteran who enriched my life.

Our author, Bob Alvis, gives a program to retired Lockheed employees. (Courtesy photograph)

As the pilots passed on, over time the structure of the organization that I had given my heart and soul to started to lose focus on why we existed. The time finally came where a parting of ways was inevitable, as the passion and determination instilled in many of us by those inspirational veterans fell on deaf ears that wanted nothing more than to turn off the lights and lock the doors. Many organizations and museums are falling into the same trap, and I must admit the answers for survival are getting pretty scary, as the generations that funded many of these operations and groups are marching off into the sunset and putting their hopes into future generations that will hopefully pick up the torch and carry on on their behalf.

Thus, this part of my storytelling this week wants to ask a question of you, the readers: what are we, as fans of all things aviation, doing to bring along future generations to keep the passion for the past alive and growing?  Many times, I see people who only care about being close to the celebrities of aerospace and aviation history, when in reality we should be closer to those who are not celebrities, but individuals looking to be a part of something bigger than themselves and who want to be part of the future storytelling, when the history books are closed and only the spoken word will be the conduit back to history made in the skies. It will be a tough transition and, much like my old organization, will face many hurdles in striving for survival in a world losing first-person, firsthand accounts — especially in a world where technology takes the human factor out of the equation.

I wrote this piece to not be a downer, but more of a wake-up call to those of us now tasked with finding a direction and narrative that will inspire a rebirth of passion and desire to bring history back into the limelight, and not relegate it to a dark closet in favor of the new and flashy being promoted to keep up with current trends. Sure, those programs have their place, but a true story that I experienced should get my point across to skeptics of the appeal of history to a new generation.

Sitting in a P-38 Lightning. (Courtesy photograph)

At an air show about 10 years ago, our P-38 booth was set up next to the Air Force recruiting trailer and display. They had all the bells and whistles with tricked out cars, 4x4s, motorcycles and music systems playing the current hits of the day. As the day passed, we were pretty busy with lines formed to get autographed pictures of World War II P-38 Lightning pilots, with many young people in those lines. Later in the day I asked the recruiter why they didn’t embrace the legacy of the Air Force and its history with a few displays of past generations. Their mindset was that the current generations will only respond to the glitz and glamor of modern times and show little interest in the military of the past. “We are selling the future, not the past,” I was told. Later that afternoon we ran out of posters for our veteran pilots to sign. We asked the Air Force recruiters if we could have some of theirs, and they gladly obliged. Suddenly, their posters signed by World War II pilots became the “hot ticket” item and our lines doubled, as many potential recruits swarmed in to get a cool Air Force poster signed by real American heroes of a past generation. After the show was over, the recruiter in charge asked if there was a way to get a couple hundred autographed pictures they could use at upcoming events. I asked the pilots and they agreed, but it came with one request: a ride in the Air Force’s tricked-out 4×4, along with photos and, of course, Glenn Miller playing on the sound system.

Those recruiters left that day with a new understanding that nostalgia sells, even to new generations, and that veteran pilots and their deeds of the past are just as much a draw to service to country, as current generations that call the Air Force home.

The times they are a-changin’, for the good and the bad, and as I am still a traveling force for promoting the P-38 Lightning and its pilots, I had to adjust to new dynamics to keep the narrative alive in a time where the most dynamic narrative can get drowned out by a society deaf to history. But we must never stop trying to stay relevant and never forget to reach out to those hungry to learn more about the Greatest Generation and the heroes of flight test. By doing so, we pass on the opportunity for them to be the storytellers and keepers of history for future generations.

Until next time, Bob out.

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