While thousands of American war veterans looked on Friday, Queen Elizabeth II opened a $17 million air museum honoring the sacrifice and courage of U.S. airmen in World War II.
“This museum is a wonderful tribute,” said Joseph McCarthy, 76, of Caldwell, Idaho, a mechanic on P47 Thunderbolts at Duxford during the war. “Coming back was a thrill.”
The queen called the futuristic concrete-and-glass dome, which resembles a partially buried jet fighter wing, “a new symbol of Anglo-American friendship.”
“I have personal memories and current experience of how the close relationship between our two countries over the years has been enhanced by the presence of the United States Air Force in the United Kingdom,” the queen said.
As Princess Elizabeth, she served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, driving cars and helping to repair heavy vehicles during World War II .
ore than 4,000 American veterans crossed the Atlantic for Friday’s ceremony at Duxford, the former air base 50 miles north of London that is now the aviation branch of the state-run Imperial War Museum in London.
Also attending were the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, second son Prince Andrew and a cousin, the Duke of Kent, who is the museum’s patron. Also on the VIP dais were former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Charlton Heston, the museum’s American co-chairman.
The 73-year-old actor paid tribute to his predecessor as co-chairman, fellow actor James Stewart who died last month, and joked that he felt “seriously outranked” by the generals on the dais.
Laughter surged through the audience when he confessed, “I was only a sergeant” in the 77th Bomb Squadron.
The museum, Europe’s largest precast concrete structure, was designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, himself a pilot.
Behind a curving, 300-foot-wide glass front, it houses 21 American aircraft that flew missions in both world wars, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. Many are suspended, giving the impression of flight.
The building’s curved shape was dictated by the biggest warplane, a B-52D Stratofortress with sweptback wings spanning 185 feet and a tail fin 52-feet tall. The bomber flew more than 200 missions from Guam in the Vietnam War.
U.S. Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall said the display “magnificently captures the spirit of man and machine dedicated to peace through strength.”
After the speeches, there was a flying display by veteran aircraft, including one of the famous B17 Flying Fortress bombers, a P51 Mustang and a P47 Thunderbolt, all of which are represented in the museum.
“It was really thrilling to watch the B17 fly past today - I wish I could be up there with them,” said James Hower, 75, from St. Joseph, Mo., a B17 pilot who was sent to Duxford in 1944.
“We were just men of 21 or 22 and of course it was thrilling to be flying, but in combat you were just scared for your life,” Hower said. “I lost a lot of friends during the war.”
A glass sculpture outside the museum commemorates the 30,000 American airmen and 7,031 aircraft lost in World War II from British bases.
Since fund raising began in 1989, tens of thousands of American veterans and other U.S. donors have contributed one-third of the museum’s cost. Britain’s national lottery, which supports a variety of charities, contributed $10.8 million.
Patrick Leonard, 75, of Boston gave $25 to become a founding member of the museum.
An aerial gunner on B17s from the 92 Bomb Group, stationed near Northampton in central England, he remembers the war as a time of intense patriotism and comradeship.
“We were scared as hell, oh yes,” he said. “But we had to come - the British were in trouble.”
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