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Lackland's museum turns 50; new mission is BMT

By James Coburn | 37th Training Wing Public Affairs | Nov. 21, 2006

Lackland Air Force Base, Texas — Lackland's History and Traditions Museum turned 50 years old this week, and big changes are in progress to focus the museum's collection on Lackland's main mission of basic military training.

Visitors already are remarking that the changes are bringing back memories of the time they went through BMT at Lackland, said the museum's curator and director, Fernando Cortez. The museum also is responsible for 39 static aircraft - the largest collection in the Air Force - scattered around the base.

The museum's interior previously had displayed an eclectic and crowded collection of memorabilia from Air Force history. Mr. Cortez said 85 percent of its collection was eliminated and returned to the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, after its director, retired Gen. Charles D. Metcalf, gave the Lackland museum marching orders three years ago to focus its mission on BMT.

The museum collection still starts with the beginnings of Air Force history in 1917 at Kelly Field, which is inextricably linked with Lackland, since the Gateway to the Air Force was formed from Kelly.

"We're interconnected, and now we're part of Kelly's history," Mr. Cortez said. Lackland's predecessor, the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, "processed thousands of aviation cadets who went off to various theaters of war," Mr. Cortez said. "The early recorded standards for basic military training came from Kelly."

The museum opened Nov. 6, 1956, as a BMT Air Force history classroom in a remodeled 1942 processing center. It is the first field museum authorized, and now many bases have museums. The History and Traditions Museum is still located in Bldg. 5206 on George Avenue at Nellis Street.

Even bigger plans are in the works, as the Gateway Museum Heritage Foundation, formed in 2003, has started a $10 million fundraising campaign to build a new and much larger museum. The foundation president, retired Chief Master Sgt. Edna Tart, former 37th Training Wing command chief, said 37th TRW Commander Brig. Gen. Darrell Jones wants the new museum to be built close to the future BMT Reception Center as part of the new BMT campus.

"With the right emphasis, I say three to five years and we're turning dirt," Chief Tart said. "There is a need for it," she said, quoting a board member, former Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Robert Gaylor, as saying of veterans and their families, "They are already coming; we just need to build it."

She said a larger facility will be able to focus on the full range of Lackland's training history.

In the current configuration, the tour begins to the left as visitors see the frame of a Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplane that trained pilots at Kelly for World War I, some tools used to train mechanics who worked on the Jenny and exhibits of mannequins wearing WWI and WWII officer and enlisted pilots' garb.

From there, visitors enter the BMT area, already mainly completed and covering most of the museum's area. In a few months, Mr. Cortez said, platforms will be built to raise most of the exhibits off the floor. In the future, visitors will pass beneath a "Gateway" arch to the BMT area, and interior walls decorated with artwork will form a historic trail from basic's beginning through the decades to today.

Veterans' firsthand accounts of their days at Lackland will be added to the museum, Mr. Cortez said. Visitors to certain exhibits, such as a barrack of the 1950s, will be able to punch a button and see a video of a veteran from that decade describe his experiences going through BMT. Several exhibits are of uniforms worn by Women in the Air Force, who received their basic training at Lackland from 1948 until 1975, when women Airmen also began going through BMT.

Veterans are given questionnaires and are being videotaped as part of the museum's oral history program started in 2004. "No book has been written on the history of BMT," Mr. Cortez said. "That makes our job really challenging. We started the BMT museum with no guidance. Alumni have stories, photos and materials we are in dire need of."

Added just a month ago is a mannequin wearing the original khaki shorts, bush jacket and pith helmet authorized for wear in BMT and throughout the Air Force as a summer uniform from 1953-58. "It was not well-liked," Mr. Cortez said, because Airmen wearing it looked like safari hunters, and sister servicemembers mocked them. "It just didn't look Air Force-enough."

In the same display case, airtight to protect the original fabric, is a "basic trainee" wearing one-piece fatigues authorized for wear from 1947-58, but not too practical because the designer forgot to include a "trap door," Mr. Cortez said.

Check it out, and a donation box is available to support a new facility.