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Exhibit echoes history of flight.

Most airports send travelers to faraway destinations, but a small Delta airport transports visitors to a different place in time. No tickets are necessary. All that's required is a climb up a small set of stairs or, if you prefer, a quick elevator ride. You'll know you've arrived when the music--like "I'll Be Seeing You" and the very appropriate "Comin' In on a Wing and Prayer"--pulls you back to 1942.

It was in Greenville in 1942 that the Army Air Corps opened a training field that would see thousands of aviation cadets take to the Delta skies. They came from all over the country for pilot training, and lives were changed in the process.

"A quiet Delta town was transformed in just months to one of the busiest aviation training centers in the country," says Ben Nelken, a Greenville businessman and one of the key organizers of the museum-style exhibit. "Young men from dozens of states found themselves in Greenville. They learned to fly, and some left never to be seen again--casualties of war. Others completed training and met and married Delta girls, returning to Mississippi after the war to live out their lives. It was a time of tremendous change--life, death, love, and valor--and you feel all those things when you visit the exhibit."

Nelken worked closely with many people to gather the remnants of history surrounding the base and organize them into this visual tribute. One of the first people he contacted was Greenwood advertising agency owner Allan Hammons, also an aviation and history buff.

With the help of an organizing committee, the two put out a call for memorabilia and input from former cadets and enlisted men, base civilian workers, and area citizens. The response put Nelken and Hammons in touch with treasured items such as a Greenville cadet's leather flight jacket and "Shakin' Jake," a like-new cutaway Jacobs R-755 radial engine. Organizers also met remarkable people, including Indianola resident and the base's first Cadet Queen Glenna Day Hartlein, who had fascinating stories to tell.

"It's one thing to read history," says Hammons. "It's quite another to touch history and hear someone like Mrs. Hartlein relive the circumstances and emotions that enveloped the people and the era."

In the 1940s, Day was one of hundreds of Delta residents who went to work at the Air Base. She held several positions there, but one of her most memorable roles was that of friend and patriotic American.

"Most cadets who were in the Delta were far from home and preparing to go to war," recalls Hartlein. "To balance the seriousness of their mission, there were base dances for cadets and plays put on for entertainment. After work, we visited cadets in the base hospital, to keep them company and write letters home to their families. We all supported our country and each other through those uncertain times."

During this time, LIFE magazine came to the base to take photographs and write a story. The story never ran, but several of the photos are part of this exhibit, including a rare cibachrome of young Glenua Day, cadet queen, sitting on the wing of a Vultee BT-13.

In fact, visitors to the exhibit can enjoy a wealth of oversized photos that tell the chronological story of the base from World War II through its re-activation for the Korean war, until its closing in 1965.

"We re-created these eras of American history," says Hammons, "through the use of vintage photographs, scale models, donated flight suits and uniforms, and base memorabilia such as an early airfield rotating beacon, as well as flight patches and yearbooks. We've also chronicled the story of Air Force firefighter training with photos, artifacts, and detailed illustrations of the principal crash trucks. Unfortunately, flight training and firefighter training went hand in hand."

The human story is told with music from the '40s, '50s and early '60s that wafts through the exhibit. There are also items from popular culture, such as a "Brenda Breeze" comic strip featuring the Greenville Army Flying School and a subscription check written to Barons by Francis Gary Powers. As a cadet, Powers trained at the base in Greenville, and later, he was the U-2 pilot shot down and captured by the Russians, sparking one of the most memorable international incidents of the Cold War era. The check is on loan from the Cold War Museum.

Others who passed through Greenville were also destined for fame, including many African-American maintenance trainees who would later serve with the Tuskegee Airmen.

The Greenville Air Force Base Museum committee continues to look for photos and memorabilia from anyone who called the base home during its heyday.

"It's impossible to pay tribute to all of the officers, cadets, servicemen and civilians who made the base a vital part of our country's war effort," says Nelken. "This exhibit, however, is intended to grow and change as more people from that era visit and share their stories. That's why we hosted a reunion of the 3506th and 3508th Maintenance Squadrons during opening weekend in the fall of 2002."

Located on the mezzanine level of the Mid Delta Regional Airport in Greenville, the Greenville Air Force Base Museum Exhibit is open daily during airport operating hours, from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. There is no charge for the journey back in time.

For more information, call 662/335-5802 or see
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Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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