New exhibits ready for takeoff at Marine Corps museum

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The National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, Va., in August, 2014.  Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes  Buy a print
The National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, Va., in August, 2014. Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes Buy a print

New exhibits ready for takeoff at Marine Corps museum

by: Kristin Davis | .
The Free Lance-Star | .
published: April 01, 2016

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (Tribune News Service) — In October 1943, as war raged in Europe, a student pilot crashed an SBD Dauntless dive bomber into Lake Michigan during a training mission.

The pilot was rescued. The aircraft sank to the lake bottom, where it would remain for half a century.

By the time the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle acquired the ill-fated Dauntless in 2008, corrosion had done a number on it. Fifty pounds of lake sediment had collected in the wings.

Five workers would spend 63,000 hours removing, rebuilding and piecing each part back together. Their efforts were so thorough and meticulous that the bomber is practically air worthy, said exhibit services chief Chuck Girbovan.

The Dauntless, newly suspended above the central gallery as if in flight once more, is one of two recently installed features that will greet visitors when the museum reopens Friday.

Also new: A Sikorsky UH-34D helicopter, part of a ground scene that recreates Marines’ first major ground operation in Vietnam. It takes the place of Korean War-era Sikorsky HRS-1 helicopter in need of restoration.

The changes mark the last time a plane or helicopter will be brought into the Leatherneck Gallery, Girbovan said. Workers had to remove the front end of the museum to get them in.

The new displays were years in the making.

The dive bomber spent more than a decade in the possession of the National Naval Aviation Museum, which recovered it from Lake Michigan in the 1990s.

The Marine Corps museum acquired it in a 2008 transfer, aviation curator Ben Kristy said. By 2009, restoration was underway.

The bomber never saw combat. But workers used historic photographs and nearly complete factory drawings to portray the first Dauntless that flew in the Guadalcanal in the Pacific Theater in 1942, he said.

Workers took apart the airplane piece by piece.

“We removed every single bolt and screw—12,000 rivets,” said Shaun Pettit, who worked on the restoration.

They manufactured parts that were missing or too damaged to fix, and they did it using the same profiles and methods used 60 years ago. They made tools no longer in existence. They mimicked repairs made in the field and recreated mistakes made by the Marines who painted bombers on the way to war.

“We agonized over the stripes on the tail hook. We taped and retaped until we got it right,” Pettit said.

“A lot of time went into being correct with the imperfections,” Kristy said. “People trust museums to have real artifacts, whether Marines touched them in the field or otherwise.”

The Sikorsky that will now serve as a backdrop for museum events did see combat. It flew in Vietnam from 1964 to 1969, including August 1965, when thousands of Marines were inserted by helicopter into an open rice patty over seven days during Operation Starlite.

“It was the worst situation you can be in,” Girbovan said.

More than 40 Marines lost their lives; 203 were wounded.

More than three decades later, the Marine Helicopter Squadron 361 Veterans Association bought its stripped shell to restore as a flying memorial.

Having served that purpose, the Sikorsky made its final flight to the museum in 2013.

It is now the centerpiece in a dramatic, lifelike scene featuring Marines running into battle.

kdavis@freelancestar.com

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