The venture started out small in the early 1980s, featuring what was essentially a high school student’s history project displayed on a pair of folding tables.
The Millville Army Air Field Museum now encompasses more than 20 buildings and two hangars, and is preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
The event will be marked by a gala affair Sunday at the Levoy Theatre on High Street in Millville as part of what is being billed as “World War II Day in Millville.”
Museum officials are excited about the event. They said the museum’s success and growth occurred because of the hundreds of people who have donated items and volunteered to help improve the venture over the years.
The heart of the museum is the same thing that prompted that high school student — Mike Stowe — to embark on his history project: The 14 men who died in training exercises while learning to fly their P-47 Thunderbolt fighters at the country’s first defense airport during World War II. Those men are still honored with special plaques at the museum.
Museum operators’ primary goal is to recount what happened when more than 10,000 men and women worked at the airfield from 1941 to '45. Their work helped turn out about 1,500 pilots who flew combat missions in just about all theaters of World War II.
“The mission grew to recognize the important aviation history that took place here and its impact on the successful outcome of the war,” museum President Chuck Wyble said. “Our goals grew even more with an effort to preserve the historic buildings located at Millville Airport.”
Hammonton resident Andrew Kondrach, one of the museum’s founders, said he has his own favorite display: Every copy of the Millville Army Air Field Thunderbolt newspaper.
Kondrach said each copy provides a unique look at life at the air field from 1944 through 1945.
“This is a real treasure,” he said.
But a walk through the museum — which occupies what was the defense airport’s headquarters building — turns up more than just the desk of the airfield’s commanders, an engine that powered one of the P-47, original bunks and photos of the outdoor privies used by U.S. Army Air Corps personnel. Visitors can also see other aspects of World War II military aviation, such as a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the county’s first black military pilots.
“It’s little museums like ours that are going to commemorate the greatest generation’s legacy,” Kondrach said.
And what is surprising to museum officials is just who is visiting the museum.
“They come from all over the world,” museum board member Donna Vertolli said. “They just want to see and hear the people’s stories. The veterans’ stories are more exciting than fiction.”
One of the projects that museum officials undertook years ago was to record the war stories of visiting veterans. Some of those recordings are now on file in the Library of Congress.
The Millville Army Air Field Museum is also designated as a New Jersey historic landmark. Vertolli said the museum has applied to be recognized as a national landmark by the National Park Service.
Kondrach said a vital mission is to develop ways to keep the museum updated for new and younger generations of visitors.
Among the goals the museum hopes to accomplish is to get a hangar refurbished so its resident P-47 Thunderbolt, and other planes, can be open for public display, Vertolli said.
Vertolli said the museum also wants to talk with officials from Rowan University and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey about students gaining credits for using the museum as part of history class projects.
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