Commemorative Air Force - Arizona Wing

A couple weeks ago I was in Phoenix, Arizona and found myself with a few hours to kill before a later flight home. True to its nickname as the Valley of the Sun, the late February weather was incredibly good, while folks back home in Tennessee were being slammed with drastic cold and ice. I fought the temptation to just head to the airport and kill time there, and decided that at the very least I’d take the opportunity to drive around and enjoy the great weather.

As I hopped in my car I glanced over at the passenger seat, and noticed a brochure I’d picked up a couple days earlier at the hotel kiosk. The flier featured a WWII airplane on the front, and so it made for an easy decision to visit Falcon Field in Mesa, the home of the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. Many of you will be more familiar with this organization by its original name - the Confederate Air Force. The CAF is a non-profit organization with locations in several states, and a few in other countries, and a primary mission of preserving and displaying older - and primarily military - aircraft.


The Mesa location is actually one of their larger ones, and has a great variety of aircraft, spanning from the WWI area through the 1970s. The CAF occupies a corner of Falcon Field with its two runways, just south of the Loop 202 Red Mountain Freeway, and maybe 20 minutes east of Sky Harbor International airport. I wheeled my rental car into their parking lot, took a good notice of the ripe oranges in the grove across the street, and strolled down the entry walk with plaques noting the lives of prominent Arizona aviators. When I entered the museum the gentleman manning the desk noticed the brochure I’d picked up at the hotel, as I’d forgotten to take it from my shirt pocket. It was actually also a coupon for a few dollars discount, which was much appreciated, and later spent in their nice gift shop.


I have to admit this was my first trip to a CAF facility, and that I know very little about these type airplanes. Like a lot of folks who grew up on Black Sheep Squadron I can spot a Corsair or a P51 Mustang, but that’s about it. The museum is basically a self-guided place, with docents scattered about, which I really liked. Everyone I spoke with was very friendly, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about the aircraft. Because my time was somewhat limited, I took a quick pace through the first hanger, and then stepped outside to watch a plane get prepped for a flight. This is what I would call a working museum, and it is possible to buy a ride in some of the old warbirds. You’ll want to schedule in advance - and save up, they’re a little pricey - but I think such a ride has now landed on my bucket list.


The second hanger holds a B-17 called Sentimental Journey, and it’s an incredible sight with its nose art featuring the fabulous Betty Grable. We were given the chance to climb up and walk through the old bomber, and I was struck by how cramped it was inside, which seemed contrary to all the old war movies I’ve watched. The walkthrough was included in admission, and I appreciated the stories told by the gentleman who was stationed at the bomber. Inside the hallway between the hangars there was an interesting display of painted flight jackets from the WWII era, as well as other smaller displays, and a movie playing inside one of the rooms.


I ended up spending almost three hours walking and learning, and luckily did have time to revisit the first hangar. My final stop was the gift shop, and even though I was a little rushed to get to my flight back to Nashville, I did take the time to pick up a souvenir - a t-shirt featuring that iconic pose of Betty Grable. I highly recommend this museum if you have a couple or three hours to spare. It’s affordable, fun, and with people there who engage you at every turn. You can find out more about it at I had a great time, and you will too.


Everyone Matters

I had been saving up for a few weeks - this was just a couple years after I'd graduated from college - and finally had the $70 I needed to buy the two-volume set of Tennesseans in the Civil War. This was the 1980s, so instead of logging on to Amazon, I hopped in my car and headed down to the Stones River National Battlefield Park, where I knew they always kept a couple sets in their gift shop. My primary interest was the volume that gave sketches of each unit's formation, as well as officers' listings and details of regimental service and action.

When I got back to my apartment I spent about an hour reading through the regimental histories, especially those from near my hometown. Then I took a moment to look at the second volume - the larger one - that ostensibly listed the names of all the men who served from Tennessee. I looked for my great-great-grandfathers, then began looking for other family names. Caught up in it, I just randomly began looking at the names, the ranks, the regiments. Suddenly, the huge volume became more intimate. A name, another, and another. I began to see these as individuals. I noted a cousin of my great-great-grandfather who served with him in the 17th Tennessee, and my grandmother's telling of their capture in an old barn where she grew up. Her grandfather had barely survived a Federal POW camp, signing the oath of allegiance in March 1865, thinking he was about to die in prison. I went searching for Major Tolbert, KIA at Shiloh, the first husband of one of my great-great-grandmothers. My great-great-grandfather was her second husband, whom she married after the war. In one of those ironic circumstances of war, had he not fallen at Shiloh, I likely would not exist today.

The history of so many families, and likely even their communities and beyond, hinged upon their lives and deaths. Historians have a tendency to talk statistics, but we also do a pretty good job of recognizing the individual, as we should. In the long run, the private may outrank the general.

Tyne Cot Cemetery is a British cemetery in the Ypres Salient of Belgium. and is the largest (by number of burials) Commonwealth cemetery in the world. It’s an incredible place to visit, so when I took my brother on a battlefield tour of Europe a couple years ago, it was a place that I knew I had to take him. I have to compliment the folks who maintain and present this cemetery. It is huge, constantly requiring maintenance people working on the property or the graves, and yet they know how to focus on the individual. As you walk from the car park into the visitors center you slowly become aware of a woman’s voice. And that voice is calmly saying the names of the men who fell in this area - those who are buried at Tyne Cot. It’s almost surreal, and the voice continues inside the building. There, you see the faces. On the day I took this little video (shown above) the hall had suddenly emptied, while outside the tour buses idled, waiting for their passengers to hop back on, and head to the next destination. 

Larger military cemeteries like that almost make you fight back against the thought that so many young men fell in such a brutal way. It's troubling to see so many markers, and more upsetting to read the names as you walk among the rows of stone. But to truly understand the devastation of war, we make a mistake when we don’t recognize the individual in the grave.