Digitizing the American Fighter Aces Oral Histories

by Ali Lane

As the home of the American Fighter Aces Association, the Museum is steward to an amazing collection of AFAA materials, from photos to letters to paintings to uniforms. One of the many highlights of this collection are the aces oral histories: recorded interviews with dozens of fighter aces in which they discuss their training, missions, and experiences during the World Wars. These interviews were made over a period of 30 years starting in the 1960s, and many were conducted during anniversaries and reunions or for specific research projects, which may make them the only copies in existence. Unfortunately, access to these oral histories has been limited; they were recorded on tapes, audio reels and other obsolete media, and no transcripts were made.

Launching Phase 1

In August, a donor who wishes to remain anonymous made a generous donation to help preserve ace interview content. With that gift, we have launched the AFAA Oral History Project, an ongoing effort by the Museum’s archives department to digitize, preserve, and increase access to these rare historic records. Over the past several weeks, I have been working on Phase 1 of the project: digitizing approximately 200 cassette tapes in the collection, which we can do with in-house equipment, and having professional transcripts made. These interviews are a treasure trove of information, and every day I hear some amazing new anecdote or personal account. Some of my favorites so far include:

  • Curran Jones’s rescue of a squadron mate during a June 1942 mission over New Guinea. A rendezvous with the 22nd Bombardment Group turned into a dogfight between Jones’s squadron of P-400 Airacobras and a group of A6M Zeros. Jones scored his first aerial victory by shooting down a Zero in pursuit of one of his wingmen. He later learned that the Zero pilot was Japanese ace Satoshi Yoshino.
  • The story of German ace Werner Mölders’s wayward award, told at a goodwill meeting between American and German fighter pilots in Geisenheim, Germany in May 1961. The gold-embossed award was made to commemorate Mölders’s 100 confirmed victories, but it somehow ended up as a souvenir of Allied troops before it could be presented to him. It eventually wound up in the possession of Col. Jack S. Jenkins, who bought it off a RAF enlisted man shortly after Jenkins’s release from a German POW camp. Jenkins returned the award to the German Fighter Pilots Association at the meeting.
  • Bill Chick’s story about a dogfight in January 1944 against an Me 109 over northern Italy. He prevailed in shooting down his opponent but not before enduring a harrowing moment where both planes ended up underneath some B-17s as they released their bombs. “I looked up...the bomb bay doors were open and it looked like the sky was full of fly specks,” Chick recounts. And the story doesn’t end there. Years later, while serving as chief of a USAF mission to Bolivia, Chick struck up a conversation with the hotel’s driver. The man, who was from Germany, mentioned that he was an Me 109 pilot during the war and described an incident in which he was shot down by a P-47 near Udine, Italy in January 1944. Chick shared his own story, including the detail about being stuck underneath the bombers, to which the driver replied, “Sir, I think you shot me down!”

Future Phases

Once the in-house digitization is complete, we will look into digitization services for the audio reels and other remaining media items: about 150 items total and containing interviews with Eddie Rickenbacker, Hubert Zemke, Dick Rossi, and others. The audio files and transcripts will become part of the Museum’s digital collection and be available to researchers. We also hope to one day build an online repository of the transcripts and audio clips that will be accessible through the Museum website. Stay tuned as this exciting project unfolds!