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Just in time for the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, Bomber Boys: Portraits from the Front appears at the MAC, featuring an engaging combination of portraits and personal stories reproduced from a secret stash of World War II images, ephemera, and a diary from 1945. The exhibition highlights the combat, captains, crew, and camp life of the 445th bomb squadron of the 12th Army Air Corps stationed on Corsica and in Italy, the same outfit featured in the classic novel and film Catch-22. The materials were saved and kept secreted away for nearly 60 years by Keith B. Lile, a tail gunner who survived 59 missions with the 445th bomb squadron.
“This amazing collection was found when my sister and I were cleaning out the hayloft of our horse barn in Gig Harbor, Washington,” says Stephanie Lile, exhibit curator. “Dad never talked much about the war and never seemed to want to, so finding the box of dusty old photos and a diary was a huge surprise.” Lile and her four siblings felt the collection was too special not to share. In fact, she has spent the last 10 years researching and cataloging the collection, an adventure that took her both to Italy and to Arizona to fly in an historic B-25.
Lile used the collection as inspiration for a young adult novel THE TAIL GUNNER, then she and her family decided to expand access to the collection by creating a traveling exhibition. Lile is a lecturer for Museum Studies at University of Washington Tacoma, and she saw an opportunity to use the collection and exhibit to involve her students in a real-world project. “The students did much of the background research on specific topics and people that was then transformed into various interpretive elements,” explains Lile. “The stories that have surfaced are amazing. One student discovered that Lorton Wellnitz, one of the bomber boys pictured in the exhibit, was not only an enlisted man and statistician, but an all-star pitcher around base.”
The exhibit features portraits of the “boys” who flew B-25 bombers in the Mediterranean theater. Some of them are known, like Wellnitz and Keith B. Lile—the tail gunner whose collection these images came from—many are not. One of the curator’s hopes in presenting this exhibit is that as the show travels, people will recognize some of the men depicted. A handful of the men in the portraits were identified by notes on the original prints, but many remain a mystery.
Bomber Boys invites visitors to see beyond the bravado and smiles to the question that plagued every airman, “How long will I live?” And some didn’t make it. In honor of all who served with the 445th squadron, the exhibit provides a complete list of officers and enlisted men, many of whom became prisoners of war or were killed in action. Additionally, visitors are invited to share their memories of bomber boys past and are challenged to piece together the stories of the men depicted through clues placed throughout the exhibit.
Far from your typical studio portraits, many of these images were snapshots taken during stand down on base. A very few show combat. Many were taken to mark a significant event such as a 50th or 100th mission, while others were meant to be shared with friends, family, and hometown newspapers.
All images courtesy of the KBL Family Collection.
Created and managed by Harbor History Museum’s Traveling Exhibition Service.
Stephanie Lile, Curator
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