The long-time historian at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force will walk into history soon.
Jeff Underwood, historian at the largest military aviation museum in the world for 17 years, retires Sept 30. Doug Lantry, a curator in the museum research division for 16 years, was chosen to take over the high-profile job, the museum announced Tuesday.
Underwood, an author and scholar with a Top Secret clearance who writes about the history of the Air Force, was also curator on some of the most high-profile exhibits: He put together a tribute to the late Hollywood and USO entertainer Bob Hope, illustrated the air power of the giant B-52 bomber in southeast Asia, and opened an expanded exhibit on the racial-barrier breaking Tuskegee Airmen, among other works.
“For the average person, we can clear off some of the dust and bring a person back to life just through an object they carried on a combat mission,” he said. “Or a good luck charm they carried in southeast Asia. People see these are people doing this. It’s not just dry history. It’s part of our republic.”
The museum tells the stories of airmen, aircraft and artifacts of decades past. But a historian also preserves and interprets history for military commanders, Underwood and Lantry said.
“That hopefully helps them make better decisions in the future,” said Lantry, 52, an Air Force Reserve major and a Columbus native who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We don’t write a chronology,” Underwood said. “We write a history.”
Underwood, 62, served as an Air Force historian for 28 years. He wrote classified unit histories at bases in Illinois, Florida and Virginia before arriving at the museum at Wright-Patterson.
“Honestly, I was just seduced by what the Air Force does,” he said. “The Air Force does very, very interesting things.”
The Air Force has about a hundred historians worldwide, a number that has dropped by half over the years as the number of units declined. At three different units, Underwood’s job was eliminated in the downsizing, but he said he was able to find work with new units because of his reputation for good work.
“Historians, we’re expected to be brutally honest and we’re expected to collect the right documents and sometimes we get in trouble,” he added. “People don’t want us to have things and that’s why each of us has security clearances so that we may be trusted” with classified material or to deploy to combat zones.
A singular highlight
For the historian, it’s “fun” to tell a visitor a story of the past.
He has given lectures and public tours, and showed the highlights of the “special place” to everyone from the secretary of the Air Force — the highest-ranking civilian leader in the service branch — to Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher, best known as Princess Leia in the iconic Hollywood film series.
Meeting the legendary Doolittle Raiders who have had celebrated reunions at the museum in recent years stands as a singular highlight, he said. The Raiders took off in 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers off the USS Hornet to bomb Japan in the first retaliatory strike against the Japanese homeland since that nation’s attack against the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The Raiders, he said, are “not only iconic American figures but they also changed the course of the Second World War.” Richard Cole, a Dayton native who lives in Texas and was co-pilot to Jimmy Doolittle on the raid, is the last surviving airmen among the original 80 Raiders.
Another moment transcended time when Underwood met an Army Air Force veteran shot down in a bomber in early 1944. The World War II veteran visited the museum with a Belgian woman who had hidden him from the Nazis.
“She saved his life,” Underwood said. “This lady who has half his height had hidden him in her basement at great personal risk from the Germans because had they found her they probably would have executed her or sent her to a worse place.”
It also made an impression on Underwood of the importance of the museum to those who lived its stories.
With his work finished, Underwood will continue to write. He and his wife, Valerie, a retired schoolteacher, will return to their native Oklahoma. “It was time for us to go play,” he said.