While Jeff Clyman was flying vintage World War II era aircraft in the 1970s at air shows, he wore his father’s U.S. Army Air Corps A-2 jacket. The A-2 was originally designed for and associated with the pilots, navigators, and bombardiers of WWII. When people began asking Jeff where they could purchase one of their own A-2s, he saw an opportunity to create a business out of his passion for aviation and his knowledge of genuine historic military fashion. As surplus pieces were difficult to find and the demand for them grew, Clyman founded the retail business, Cockpit USA, in order to reproduce and offer authentic replica vintage flight clothing in its catalogue. But for Clyman, that was the tip of the iceberg because he had always wanted to feature WWII apparel in a museum environment to honor the servicemen and women who wore the iconic jackets.
Early on, Jeff and his wife, Jacky, were fortunate to personally acquire several operational warbirds, including a Grumman TBM, a North American B-25 Mitchell and a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. The aircraft were housed in a hangar at Allaire Airport in Monmouth County, New Jersey and it was there that they founded, The American Museum for the Preservation of Historic Aircraft, or (AMPHA). With Allaire being off the beaten path, the museum never developed the following that was hoped for and in 1992 AMPHA closed its doors to the public. Despite its closure, the aircraft in AMPHA’s collection continued to make appearances at air shows throughout the northeast. In 1993, at an airshow near Poughkeepsie, Jeff mentioned to Manhattan based publicist, Gary Lewi that he wanted to relocate his New Jersey museum to the Hudson Valley vicinity. Noting that there was little population density and not much of a discernible media market, Lewi asked Clyman, ‘’Why there?’’ Clyman, responded, ‘’Ok- so where would you relocate it?” And without hesitation, Lewi answered, “’Long Island.”
Scouting potential sites for the relocation of the museum, Jeff and Gary looked at several fields, including Floyd Bennett Field and Westhampton, as well as Lakehurst N.J. But the site at Republic Airport in Farmingdale, Long Island, was the obvious venue for a variety of reasons, including the empty historic hangars and control tower still standing there. Once occupied by Seversky Aircraft and the Republic Aviation Corporation, producer of the famed P-47 Thunderbolt, Republic Aviation was considered a key manufacturer of aircraft for the Arsenal of Democracy during the Second World War. With its central location in a densely populated area that included a large veteran demographic, and close proximity to the NY-Long Island media market, the potential for regional corporate and government support would be most promising at Republic. Hence, in 1998, AMPHA received a $250,000 grant from New York State and the museum’s name was changed from the unwieldy AMPHA to the American Airpower Museum, or AAM.
Gary Lewi, who was a spokesman for the museum, recalled, ‘’Critical to the establishment of the AAM was the major role played by, then Governor George Pataki and Republic Airport management, namely Bill McShane ,who literally opened the doors to the new museum and embraced its mission, understanding that its presence would enhance the airport.” In addition, there was a succession of state airport officials who welcomed the museum, Hugh Jones, Mike Geiger and Shelley Larose-Arken, who at the time was Republic Airport manager and instrumental in its development.
At the heart of the AAM in its early stages was its volunteer corps, a diverse group of men and women who were members of the 533rd Living History Volunteer Squadron, based out of Floyd Bennett Field. Gary Lewi, already a volunteer with this group of aviation historians, recruited a cadre of its members who regularly appeared at regional military commemorative programs and aviation events wearing period flight suits and authentic flight gear, and shifted the volunteer base east to the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale. In 1999, the squadron, later called the 533rd, began hands-on restoration of the old red brick Republic control tower, and the then 64-year-old Hangar 3 which now houses the museum. Using their knowledge of WWII history, carpentry, construction, electrical and creative assets, several major freestanding exhibits with artifacts, uniforms, a Ready Room and a Briefing Room, were designed to accompany the flight worthy and static aircraft in Airpower’s collection. The Museum acquired an AT-6, a fully equipped static Republic A-10 and P-47, a PBY Catalina and a Douglas C-47. Later on, Jeff and Jacky Clyman donated their B-25 Mitchell, ‘Miss Hap’,’ giving the Museum a healthy core of flying aircraft. Through the determination and tireless efforts of the AAM Board of Directors and the 533rd Volunteer Squadron, the American Airpower Museum officially opened to the public in May 2000. Several World War II veterans and homefront civilians joined the 533rd, many of them as docents. As primary resources they stood on hand at the Museum to share firsthand accounts of the history and times that they once bore witness to. The impact of their personal testimonies gave a powerful voice to the memories of the men and women, who designed, produced, operated, and maintained the aircraft, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to country during the Second World War.
Today, with the passing of this generation, comes the Museum’s sustained mission as a not-for-profit, educational institution, to preserve the aircraft, artifacts and the legacy of those Americans who served in the armed forces and as civilians… not only during World War II, but in the times of war and peace that followed. Expanding on the collection’s time and place in history, the dedicated volunteers and docents at the Museum, many who are veterans of the Korean War, Vietnam and the Mid-East, interact with the public, verbalizing and putting into context what the hardware and artifacts cannot. While the warbirds generally receive center stage on the floor during flight ops and commemorative events, the curated exhibits at the AAM with their display of documents, memorabilia, uniforms, artifacts and text panels rise on their own as a compelling secondary resource available to the public… there to educate present and future generations.
The first major exhibit to be unveiled at the AAM was attended by Governor George Pataki on January, 11, 2001 honoring the Tuskegee’s 332nd Fighter Group. This exhibit is positioned beneath a replica of the Red-tailed P-51 flown by Lt. Col. Lee Archer, an ace with the 332nd FG, and one of a dozen, Tuskegee Airmen who attended the exhibit’s dedication. On June 13, 2001, Governor Pataki returned to the AAM to unveil a permanent exhibit that paid tribute to the Women Airforce Service Pilots, (WASP), the first American women to fly military aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Forces during WWII. Eight WASP veterans travelled to Farmingdale to attend the dedication. As the museum grew, a multitude of new displays followed the Tuskegee and WASP exhibits, each one of them presenting a powerful narrative.
The ‘Lady Be Good’ exhibit tells the story of a USAAF B-24 Liberator and its aircrew that disappeared without a trace in 1943. On September 5, 2015, 533rd volunteer, Bernadette Missano, commander of the Long Island Chapter of American ex-Prisoners of War and daughter of ex-POW, Michael J. Missano, organized a ceremony with five surviving ex-POWs, honoring her late father and his comrades before the POW-Stalag Luft exhibit which contains many relics, images and videoed oral histories of ex-POWs. The panoramic Republic Aviation exhibit comes complete with a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ at work and at home. An exhibit set in a canvassed field tent highlights the Women War Correspondents of WWII. Adjacent to these displays are the Airborne exhibit, ‘Moments in History’ dioramas, the Republic Aviation Theater, a Vietnam exhibit and more. Since its official opening 21 years ago, under the direction of American Airpower Museum manager, Larry Starr, this living history museum continues its mission, maintaining their permanent exhibits and creating new ones. With the passing of the generation of original WWII veteran volunteers, the Museum’s present cadre of volunteers has expanded from the founding 533rd, and they continue to be caretakers of their legacy, both in the sky and within the walls of the time capsule that is the American Airpower Museum…..walls mounted with Lucite cases displaying uniforms, letters home, photographs from a time gone by and, of course, A-2 jackets.
To learn more about the American Airpower Museum, vist the AAM website at www.americanairpowermuseum.org
In Memory of Josephine Rachiele, ‘Josie the Riveter’