After the Allied victory over the Nazis in May 1945, an American pilot toured Adolf Hitler's Munich apartment. Later, Master Sgt. Paul Gunder wrote a letter to his family on a leaf of paper that bore the words "Adolf Hitler" in the upper left-hand corner.
"This paper, I am using, is perhaps one of the world's most exquisite," he wrote on the fallen Nazi leader's personal stationery.
"Or at least it used to be! Ha! What Hitler would do to me if he only knew, and could do something about it. . . . "
Gunder's letter is among the mementos on display at the Airmen Memorial Museum in Suitland. Founded in 1986, the museum documents both the bravery (such as the heroic death of Frank S. Scott, the force's first casualty) and the playfulness (such as pocketing Hitler's letterhead) of those who have served in the U.S. Air Force and its progenitors.
The museum--which each year has 500 to 1,000 visitors, including school groups, veterans and enlisted airmen--aims to highlight the lesser-known realities of airmen's day-to-day lives.
"A lot of times in history, it only focuses on the officers and generals who are in charge, but you never hear about the little guy," said Sean Miskimins, the museum's assistant curator. "You hear a lot about the people who pilot the planes, but what about the guys who kept the planes in working order?"
The museum is located--appropriately--in two wings of the lobby of the three-story Air Force Sergeants Association building. The association is a nonprofit group for more than 160,000 active and retired members of the U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.
The exhibits chronicle the history of the Air Force, which began in 1907 when Brig. Gen. James Allen issued a memorandum establishing the first Aeronautical Division of the Army Signal Corps. (The original memorandum is on display.)
Photographs of the division's first enlistee, Eddie Ward, are displayed, along with his metal identification tags and pilot's license and photos of his uniforms: khaki cotton for summer and heavy wool for winter. The ensemble also included canvas leggings, russet shoes and a short-billed service cap.
Although the group is better known for its machismo than its fashion sense, the museum expends a lot of time on uniforms. Many of the exhibits are devoted to the evolution of Air Force regalia. There are the once-state-of-the-art leather-and-cork flying helmets. There are also "flex flying goggles" and a wide array of badges, jackets and uniforms.
Many of the highly personal, everyday items used by airmen during World Wars I and II are also on view: old-fashioned shaving kits, playing cards, dice, combs, extra buttons and a metal cigarette case. Visitors also will see a pocket-size Army-issue edition of the New Testament.
The second wing of the museum is dominated by color photographs of servicemen during routine scenes from their enlisted lives. World War II-era GIs are pictured sucking on cigarettes, playing an afternoon game of craps and relaxing in a Paris bistro during a three-day pass. The soldiers' living quarters also are pictured, complete with nude pinups on the walls.
Another telling item is the museum's replica of an Air Force Orderly Room. In the room, which contains two desks, cabinets, rotary phones and an old-fashioned typewriter, museum visitors can push a button and hear six one-minute dialogues from a typical day in the office. The exchanges show how Air Force bureaucrats probably dealt with issues such as alcoholism or a young man torn by family problems back home.
Near the end of the tour, there is more evidence of playfulness among the airmen. During World War II, "nose art" paintings by servicemen on the noses of their airplanes were a way to display crew unity.
One such painting on the nose of a weather aircraft called "Straight Flush" that toured Hiroshima in 1945 shows a hand thrusting a U.S. flag toward an airman who is emerging from a toilet. Another painting depicts a voluptuous woman wearing a transparent blouse next to the plane's name, "Next Objective."
Remembering that next objective no doubt helped many everyday airmen through the lean days.
The Airmen Memorial Museum is at 5211 Auth Rd. in Suitland and open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Admission is free. Call 301-899-8386.