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'Rosie the Riveter" is an iconic World War II image. A flash of bicep and the "We can do it!" tagline lends itself to a campaign for women to enter the workforce, and for the United States as a whole to fight the dark cloud overseas, the war wreaking havoc in western Europe.

But anyone born after the '60s grew up seeing this image largely unassociated with its origin — on refrigerator magnets or posters, or altered to fit the latest ad campaign. It's time, say the founders of the National Museum of World War II Aviation, to pin the story back down.

Their restored airplane hangar on Aviation Way hasn't yet been open a month, and only does tours three days a week. But with floors polished, restored planes in place, walls covered in exhibit cases and timelines, the WWII museum looks like a top-notch attraction. It's the only museum in the country focusing entirely on WWII aviation, and once the museum grows more, the board plans to try to achieve congressional recognition as a national museum.

"What we want people to understand is how important the home-front effort really was, because no one really tells that story," says Col. Jim Stewart, retired Air Force fighter pilot and board co-chairman. "How important it was that women got into the workforce ... and that the technology we developed continues to be the underpinnings of our technology today."

Taking flight

The museum started with a simple vision about seven years ago. Stewart, 70, remembers imagining something of a "toy store" where visitors could view restored WWII aircraft.

He and Bill Klaers, owner of West Pac Restorations, an aircraft restoration business, created a board of directors and started formulating a plan. Their small concept quickly snowballed into something much larger: the foundation for what Stewart now calls an educational complex.

"What we really want to do is empower the teachers to work in the classroom," Stewart says, "and then come out and share that experience in our facility."

Aviation is obviously the museum's niche, but Stewart, Klaers and Chris Pierce, the museum's volunteer curator, along with around 40 volunteers, have ensured that beyond eight restored planes, there are plenty of artifacts and information filling the 44,000 square feet. In emphasizing the role patriotism played in the era, they include wartime pamphlets promoting "Victory Gardens," newspaper clippings, advertisements like those featuring the iconic Rosie; pins, uniforms and much more.

Many artifacts were already part of WestPac's collection. Others are personal donations from locals "looking to preserve their family's history," Pierce says. Once the museum is on the social radar of the area, or even nationally, they expect people will even more readily donate wartime artifacts.

It's already on one important radar screen. Chelsy Murphy, public relations manager for the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, says it will be included in the more than 550,000 copies of the 2013 Colorado Springs Visitors Guide.

"We think it's an exciting addition," says Murphy. "Because of the military presence [in Colorado Springs], it seems like a natural fit."

Five-year plan

While Stewart says he's happy with the museum so far, it's only "Phase I." In the next five years, he says he's planning for an adjacent $15 million expansion. They hope to have different schools where students can learn about various aspects of aviation and space that teachers can use to supplement regular school curriculum. This includes STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — and a school where people can learn to work on airplanes.

All that in mind, the museum board is still very much in a fund-raising mode, asking for support from well-heeled individuals and groups who are passionate about aviation and its history. None of the museum's money is going to come from federal dollars. Nor will it come from local government.

"We really haven't asked," says museum spokesperson John Henry, and he doesn't foresee them doing so. "People are more accepting when you're privately funded."

Those who do give money will be helping tell a story unique in the American pantheon. During the war, airplane production increased exponentially, and a nearly nonexistent industry became dominant. Car production almost stopped as Americans shifted their attention and money to aircraft manufacturing.

"In 1944," says Pierce, "there was a B-24 bomber coming off the assembly line every 55 minutes."

It's "one of those amazing times in American history," he adds, "that you hope doesn't get lost."

cwright@csindy.com

  • New World War II museum opens Phase 1, with sights set on future growth.

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