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Veterans fuel museum expansion

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Veterans who poured their hearts and thousands of volunteer hours into new exhibit space for the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum had a mission: Tell the story.

Saturday morning, their mission was accomplished.

Hundreds of visitors poured into the revamped museum exhibit space at the Columbus Municipal Airport, following a dedication ceremony filled with accolades from Columbus native Gov. Mike Pence, Mayor Kristen Brown and Indiana National Guard Adjutant Gen. R. Martin Umbarger.

The air museum, founded in 1992, was built to remember the former Atterbury Army Air Field here, later named Bakalar Air Force Base, and its contributions through the years to the nation’s war effort.

With this expansion, there is room for visitors to wander, and learn more about the sacrifices and triumphs of veterans who traveled through the air field here and those who served in far-away battles.

There are remembrances of those who served from the Columbus area during World War II and beyond, including those who served in Vietnam. And there is a wall honoring Indiana’s aviation heroes — from decades ago to present day.

The air museum volunteers raised more than $300,000, some of it $25 at a time, to add the exhibit space. They then volunteered about $500,000 worth of labor — designing and building exhibits, rehabbing donated items into workable condition, and all the painting and woodworking needed for that. They transformed a section of the new addition into a re-created barracks room. And now visitors can peer into a restored cockpit of a CG-4A glider.

And it’s not just looking — visitors can hear the voices and watch film of pilots and navigators on missions. They can touch the gear that World War II pilots wore. With the push of a button, they can see how a World War II rotating beacon would guide pilots home to the Columbus base years ago. There’s a picture where you can still see the tower at the Columbus Airport.

“We need to tell the story,” said Gustav Potthoff, who was a World War II prisoner of war, held by Japan and forced to work on the Burma Siam Railway. Now in a wheelchair, he still volunteers at the museum to tell schoolchildren about how he was captured on his 18th birthday, and how he still admires the bomber pilots, whose accuracy always managed to miss him when he was a prisoner of war.

“I’m so glad to see the new building — to see this,” he said, waving his hand toward the nearby exhibits. “Only the brave...,” he said of the faces on the walls. “They are why we are free. So I tell the story.”

Pence mingled among the crowd during the tours after the dedication, graciously allowing a few “selfie” cellphone photographs and sharing remembrances with veterans.

He grew up just a bit south of the airport in Columbus and recalled hiking over to Bakalar Air Force Base to explore and see the remnants of what was once a thriving support system for the war effort. He also recalled living next door to Tom Vickers, his father’s best friend and a “ramrod straight Air Force veteran” who kept him on the straight and narrow while growing up.

During his dedication remarks, Pence recalled Vickers made sure to approach him when Pence was a congressman to ask him to make sure the heritage of Atterbury-Bakalar would be preserved, and that the base’s contribution to freedom would be remembered.

“The old book tells us to teach the stories,” Pence said. “So we will remember. Their sacrifices will be remembered.”

Before inviting Pence, Brown and Umbarger in for the first tour, museum board President Jim Sellars asked those at the ceremony to look for “a lot of guys with stars and bars on their chest. They’re the ones who made this happen.”

Among them are retired engineers, furniture designers, even marketing experts. “A lot of guys who volunteered are woodworkers,” Sellars said. Their handiwork is evident throughout the exhibit, in the museum cases and the design finishes.

Those guys, the volunteers who put in years of hard work, include John Walter, who was a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II and assigned 35 missions over occupied France and Germany. On his lapel was a metal pin of a B-17, “my favorite girlfriend,” the retired Cummins Inc. engineer joked.

Walter, who is in his 90s, has been working on the museum since 1993 — he designed partitions and display cabinets for exhibits. And while he’s best known for creating the Cummins “exploded engine” at the company’s world headquarters here, veterans were lauding him for designing the museum tower which holds the DCB-224 Double Drum Rotating Beacon.

He’s modest, saying he doesn’t really like all the fuss. “I was having fun,” he said of the design and building work. “It’s something I wanted to do.”

He pointed to the ceiling where the scale models of aircraft bring back memories of those who flew bombing missions long ago, remarking that with the additional space, there is more room to view the detailed work on the planes, which was accomplished by the late Joe and Glenn Grube, and retouched by Charles Abbott.

“As time goes on, the people who remember all this won’t be here,” Walter said. “One of the things the museum has done is invite school children to come in. The history books just give a glancing acknowledgement — this is an effort for us to make sure this is remembered. That was our mission that we wanted to accomplish.”

Some volunteers aren’t veterans, but were attracted by the mission, and contributed where they could. Ron Arnold, a retired sales executive, joined the museum volunteer force after hearing Walter speak at a Kiwanis meeting.

“I’m a World War II buff, so I thought, what the heck,” he said. He graduated from Howe Military Academy and was drafted in 1958, but flunked the physical. His father, Kenneth Kennedy, was among those who landed on Normandy on D-Day.

Arnold helped build the World War II barracks display and with painting. He liked the “hands-on” experience of getting his hands dirty in a volunteer role.

“It’s a great story,” he said of the museum’s journey to Saturday’s unveiling. “This is their story,” he said, as he watched the veterans move from exhibit to exhibit.

Maynard North, Mooresville, was moving through the new addition, reminiscing about his days as a navigator on a B-17 for the 487th Bomb Group in Lavenham, England.

He was remembering 25 missions out of that base and said, “we had a good crew.”

The volunteers will now embark on the next phase of the expansion, sharing their mission and the story with the community, and with the nation.

“This has been a dream for years,” said Gordon Lake, First Sgt. U.S. Army (Ret.), who coordinates museum special events and works on the museum website. “Finally, we have the dream coming true.”

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