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In an old Army Air Force hangar in Yakutat, Bob Miller has boxes of World War II-era letters from soldiers to loved ones. He has more than 400 posters exhorting the reader to "do your part," or fight for "freedom from fear," or remember December 7. He has Disney drawings from the war.
Honoring Alaska's WWII history 042915 NEWS 3 CAPITAL CITY WEEKLY In an old Army Air Force hangar in Yakutat, Bob Miller has boxes of World War II-era letters from soldiers to loved ones. He has more than 400 posters exhorting the reader to "do your part," or fight for "freedom from fear," or remember December 7. He has Disney drawings from the war.

Mary Catharine Martin | CCW

This BT-13 Valiant, used to train pilots in World War II, crashed at the mouth of the Situk after the war and spent decades in a scrap metal dump. Miller plans to refurbish it and return it to the Yak-tat Kwaan, on whose land it spent many years.


Mary Catharine Martin | CCW

Bob Miller points at a place a bullet damaged this C-47, used to transport cargo and soldiers during the war.


Mary Catharine Martin | CCW

This piece of propaganda is based on the same brothers whose story inspired the movie "Saving Private Ryan."


Mary Catharine Martin | CCW

The Alaska Warbird museum has hundreds of letters from soldiers to loved ones. Some artifacts, Miller has bought; many have been donated to the museum.


Mary Catharine Martin | CCW

Bob Miller, who plans a Yakutat museum to commemorate World War II in Yakutat, in Alaska, and overall, stands inside a C-47 plane that was used for cargo and to transport soldiers in World War II. It was most recently used in Yakutat to fly fish.


Mary Catharine Martin | CCW

Pieces of a toy plane rest on a folded American flag at the old Army Air Force hangar in Yakutat. Bob Miller, who owns the hangar, plans a World War II museum there.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Story last updated at 4/29/2015 - 1:41 pm

Honoring Alaska's WWII history

In an old Army Air Force hangar in Yakutat, Bob Miller has boxes of World War II-era letters from soldiers to loved ones. He has more than 400 posters exhorting the reader to "do your part," or fight for "freedom from fear," or remember December 7. He has Disney drawings from the war.

Most of all, he has one and a half planes - the start of what he plans will eventually become the Alaska Warbird Museum and a World War II flight school.

"The story of Alaska and World War II is grossly neglected," Miller said. "Alaska actually played a tremendous role in the Allies winning the war in the Pacific."

The planes are the "sexy" reason to come to the museum. Miller - a pilot who acknowledged he doesn't do anything halfway - plans "a full-blown World War II flight school."

"You can come to Yakutat and pretend it's 1943, and pretend to be a fighter pilot," he said. "If you want to do a scenic flight over our glaciers, do you want to do it in a dumb Cessna? Or a B-25?"

Miller, whose interview for this article was conducted amid shelves full of books on World War II, model planes and World War II paraphernalia, said that while Alaska didn't get many resources from the U.S., Japan expended a significant amount of its resources in Alaska, especially the Aleutians.

"You get older and you realize the cost of freedom," he said. "I owe something to the people who stand in harm's way to protect me. Although a World War II specific museum, this is in dedication to men and women who serve."

The second world war in Yakutat

The overall vision for the Alaska Warbird Museum includes about 76,000 square feet of space. Miller plans a restaurant and an old movie theater. (A woman in New York whose father served in the Army Corps of Engineers in Yakutat tracked Miller down when she was cleaning out her father's garage, and sent him an old newsletter announcing the opening of Yakutat's theater, complete with a scheduling of movies.) He plans a bowling alley, and lodging for pilots at the school. Some of the space in the hangar will be leased, to pay the bills.

Miller calls his collection of propaganda posters "by far the largest collection of its type in Alaska."

"Some of it's unbelievably racist and inappropriate, but we're doing (the museum) to tell history and let you judge it for yourself, not tell you what to think," he said.

He has all kinds of Disney drawings.

"When the war broke out, half of (Walt Disney's) market fell into the war zone," Miller said. "Even though he was teetering on bankruptcy and almost broke, any time anyone from military would request (some of his work or drawings) - he would do them for free."

Miller plans to visit Alaska's schools, talking about the impact of the war on Alaska. Not all of it was positive - some contamination may linger (according to a report just this February from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will soon address most of the sites in Yakutat.)

"Yakutat was one of the first airbases built in Alaska," he said. "The aircraft at the time couldn't fly the distances they do now, and they needed multiple airports. Yakutat and Metlakatla were two of the first." The 406th Bombardment Squadron was stationed in Yakutat.

The grand opening of Yakutat's base was three months before Pearl Harbor, he said.

"We knew the war was coming, and we would be drawn in," he said.

Alaska got "the death trap" planes, he said. Later, those same planes - the B-26 Marauder, the P-38 Lightning - "became some of the best performing aircraft... they proved themselves here," he said. "The Alaska soldiers are the ones that figured out how to fly these aircraft properly."

Planes

He counts the museum's "warbirds" right now at one and a half. They have a C-47, an early version of a passenger plane - it carried cargo and dropped soldiers into battle. This particular plane, he said, was one of the first 13 involved in the fight in Europe, getting a 2-foot hole from friendly fire.

It went on to support the military at Normandy. In its second life, it was a Cordova Airlines plane; in its third, since 1982, it flew fish in Yakutat. It only needs a small repair before it's flight-capable.

They also have the skeleton of a BT-13 Valiant, called an SNV-2 by the Navy. It's a two-seater fighter trainer plane.

"A new pilot joining the Army Air Corps would have started in (this kind of plane,) he said." "So what we plan on doing is getting all three of the trainers and transitioning people through flight school."

He plans to polish up this Valiant, but get another for the flight school, as it's too far gone to be restored to flying condition. It crashed at the mouth of the Situk River and has been in the scrap metal dump since the 1950s, he said. He and others pulled it out and salvaged it two years ago.

Money

Miller, who also owns Yakutat's fly fishing shop (housed in the hangar, too) estimates he's already put a half a million dollars into the renovation of the hangar, largely funded by storage fees - the hangar houses boats, cars and (post World War II) planes. He, Christine "Teen" Miller, his wife, and the museum's board, composed mostly of people will military and aviation backgrounds, have been working on it for about five years, he said. The Millers live at the hangar now, too, the better to renovate and prevent the vandalization that may come with a building that still, in some places, looks abandoned. Living where they work also helps with projects - they've been tackling different parts of the project, with the Millers' kids helping out spackling, painting, and renovating.

Miller wants to fund the museum with private money ("I'm a conservative," he said, drinking from a cup that posed the question, "Who is John Galt?") He'll be constructing a new airport fuel facility in the coming year, and all the profits from that business will go to the museum. Donations have also funded some improvements.

The museum has nonprofit status and a board, mostly of people with aviation and military backgrounds, he said.

"(The museum is) a burden that now that I've started, I have an obligation to do this," he said. "We have to remember what that generation did - they left the farms and the cities, our grandparents, and literally saved the world from unspeakable evil. And we cannot forget that."

Miller has blogged about the museum (and fly fishing in Yakutat) at www.situkriver.wordpress.com. The future website of the museum is www.akwarbirds.org.

• Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@capweek.com.