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Airman Heritage Museum honors legacy of Airmen

By David DeKunder | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | Nov. 9, 2020

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —

Located inside a building that was a hub for World War II aviation cadets, the Airman Heritage Museum at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland chronicles the history of the base, the early beginnings of the Air Force and honors the proud legacy of those who have served as Airmen.

Founded in 1956, the Airman Heritage Museum is the oldest field museum in the Air Force, outside of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and contains 35 exhibits on the history on JBSA-Lackland.

Formerly known as the History and Traditions Museum, it was renamed the Airman Heritage Museum in 2010.

The museum is part of the Airman Heritage Training Complex at JBSA-Lackland that consists of indoor and outdoor exhibits and displays of base and Air Force history, including the Air Park and the U.S. Air Force Security Forces Museum Exhibit Annex.

Airman Heritage Training Complex director Bill Manchester said the museum’s exhibits cover the scope of history of JBSA-Lackland, from when it was part of Kelly Field in 1942 to when it became its separate base and the home of basic military training for the Air Force in 1947, earning the designation as “The Gateway to the Air Force,” to the present day.

“A third of the museum is dedicated to early Lackland, early Kelly (Field) history and then two-thirds of the museum is the history of basic military training,” Manchester said. “This is ‘The Gateway to the Air Force’ and our museum highlights that.”

The building the Airman Heritage Museum is housed in has a historical significance to the early origins of JBSA-Lackland. Constructed in 1942, it was the in-processing center for the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, which comprised all of the dorms and classrooms at Lackland for aviation cadets training at then Kelly Field.

“Cadets did their basic training, their initial acculturation in the Air Force here at Lackland,” Manchester said. “Eventually turning it into what we know as basic military training.”

Manchester said the Airman Heritage Museum contains several unique exhibits on JBSA-Lackland and Air Force history and on the life and legacy of Airmen. Those exhibits include an original Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” bi-plane, the primary training aircraft used by the U.S. Army Air Service before and during World War I; nine dioramas on life and basic training for trainees during the 1950s, 60s and 70s; the “Green Monster,” the nickname for the in-processing building for basic trainees that stood at Lackland from the 1950s to 1975; a setup of a modern-day barracks or dorm and the Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training, or BEAST, which provides an interpretation of the field training for basic trainees conducted at the JBSA-Chapman Annex, formerly JBSA-Lackland Annex.

Visitors can also walk around the Air Park, a static display of more than 40 aircraft spanning eight decades, and go to the U.S. Air Force Security Forces Exhibit Annex, which houses 47 exhibits and displays on the history of the Air Force Security Forces.

Each year, thousands of visitors and Airmen at JBSA-Lackland come to both the Airman Heritage and U.S. Air Force Security Forces Exhibit Annex museums. Both museums drew a combined 59,000 visitors in 2019, with 36,000 coming through the doors of the Airman Heritage Museum. 

“Given the size of the graduation class, it’s dependent on how many visitors we have,” he said. “Typically, we’ll have over 300 and we’ve had up to a 1,000 in one given Thursday afternoon.”

Manchester said the modern-day dorm and the BEAST exhibits are a favorite among young Airmen and their families who visit the Airman Heritage Museum.

“What happens is these young Airmen get to show their families, ‘Yes, my dorm was like this and I got to make my bed like this,’” he said. “During BEAST, they live in tents out in the field. No matter what their service, a person loves to tell war stories. A basic military trainee does not have a war story, they just came in. So, the BEAST is their war story.”

Manchester said he hopes Airmen and the visitors who go through the Airman Heritage Museum leave with a greater appreciation of the Air Force and its history and the role JBSA-Lackland has had in that.

“I hope when they go through the museum, they understand that from its beginnings within the Army the Air Force has created a service that today we see is the world’s finest air force, with the world’s finest Airmen and that it all starts here,” Manchester said. “We want people to be able to walk out of here and say, ‘Hey, I know more about the Air Force and where it came from and what it was than I did before.’”

The Airman Heritage Training Complex contains more than 3,700 artifacts in its collections, including artifacts kept in a storage warehouse at the JBSA-Chapman Training Annex. The artifacts belong to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

In addition, the Airman Heritage Museum houses a library with several archival collections that is open by appointment.

The Airman Heritage Museum is located at 2051 George Ave, building 5206. Admission to the museum is free. Museum hours are Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The museum is closed Sunday through Tuesday.

The Security Forces Exhibit Annex Museum, located at 1300 Femoyer St., is open Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free.

Information about the Airman Heritage Museum and the Airman Heritage Training Complex is at www.airmenheritage.com. To schedule a tour of the museum or make an appointment to view the archival collections, contact the museum at 210-671-3055 or aetc.ho.ol-ho@us.af.mil.