Story & photos by Patrick Alexander
Oregon Coast TODAY
The contrast could hardly be more striking. Here, inside one of the largest buildings in Oregon, the focus is one of the smallest.
At just six feet tall and four and a half feet wide, the Anderson air raid shelter is dwarfed by the cavernous surroundings of the Tillamook Air Museum, housed inside a hangar built to store surveillance blimps during World War II.
But the tiny structure exemplifies the museum’s new focus on exhibits that are interactive and tell the wider story of the ways in which aviation has shaped history for the past century and more.
“The face of museums is changing,” Air Museum Curator Christian Gurling said. “It used to be ‘come in, stand here, look at this, don’t touch.’ Now, people want to be entertained; and if we can educate them while entertaining them, all the better.”
Named after British Home Secretary Sir John Anderson, the Anderson shelter was a key part of efforts to withstand the Blitz, the German bombing campaign that hit its peak from 1940 to 1941.
Made from thick steel and half sunk into the ground, these tough structures became a common sight across wartime Britain, with some 3.6 million produced.
Guests are encouraged to climb into the replica shelter to get a sense of the cramped conditions that families would endure as they sought sanctuary during the long nights of bombing.
Inside the shelter, guests will meet Abigail, a mannequin reading a book by lantern light, who got her name thanks to a Facebook contest that attracted hundreds of entries.
Museum Director Phyllis Rice said the contest touched a chord with the public, many of whom submitted personal stories along with their entries.
The exhibit, which has been on display for the past nine months, is part of the museum’s drive to create an attraction that speaks to people from all backgrounds, rather than concentrating solely on the men and metal that so often dominate aviation exhibits.
“I want to make it something for everyone, not like some museums that are just for guys,” Gurling said. “Look at the role the women played in World War II — WASPS [Women Airforce Service Pilots] who flew the aircraft from the factories literally to the front lines. Those airplanes would not have been built in World War II if not for the women.”
This focus on the people behind aviation history is also present in another of the museum’s new exhibits, which recreates the site of a 1948 naval airplane crash between Rockaway Beach and Wheeler.
Pilot Bob Smedley was flying the SB2C-5 Helldiver from the Tillamook Air Station to Astoria, on its way to storage in Corpus Christie, Texas, when something went wrong and the airplane plunged into dense forest.
A military search of the site recovered Smedley’s body along with the aircraft’s weaponry, but there was no appetite for salvaging the plane itself.
“After World War II, they didn’t even want whole aircraft,” Gurling said, “let along ones that had wrecked.”
In 2010 after laying forgotten for more than 60 years, the crash site was rediscovered by a local lumber company, prompting a more thorough examination by forensic anthropologists that recovered several of Smedley’s personal effects.
In addition to presenting the aircraft wreckage and Smedley’s belongings, the exhibit goes beyond the events of that 1948 day to provide details about Bob Smedley the man, husband and father, including photographs provided by his daughter, Susan.
“For her, it’s a connection to her father,” Gurling said. “Being nine months old at the time, she never knew her father.”
Other exhibits give visitors glimpses of aviation history from across the globe: fragments of the doomed Hindenburg airship that exploded above New Jersey in 1937, a flight jacket from a downed Luftwaffe pilot and a winter flight suit from Imperial Japan, lined with white rabbit fur.
And then, of course, there are the ’planes themselves — a collection of some 25 aircraft, ranging from the massive Aerospacelines Mini Guppy that greets visitors at the front door to the tiny Rutan Model 61 Long E-Z, the model of aircraft John Denver was flying at the time of his fatal crash in 1997.
Several of the aircraft have seen combat, including an A7 Corsair that flew 39 missions in the first Gulf War and a MiG 17 used by the North Vietnamese Air Force during the Vietnam War.
The museum’s collection continues to grow as ’plane owners donate aircraft to a place dedicated to preserving their stories for generations to come.
“And we have plenty of space,” Gurling said. “Seven acres under one roof.”
The Tillamook Air Museum is located just south of Tillamook on Hangar Road and open from 10 am to 4 pm Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $9.75 for adults; $8.75 for seniors; $7.75 for active or retired military; $6.50 for kids aged seven to 17; and $2.75 for kids aged two to six. For more information, go to www.tillamookair.com.