On Veterans Day at the reopening of Heroes' Hall Museum, visitors will learn about pilots, navigators and gunners from the last world war. And they'll learn the story of one bomber pilot named Bud.
Just under a year before the allies would land on Utah and Omaha beaches, Robert "Bud" Kingsbury was on a bombing run to Italy, not long before he'd gone through pilot training school at Santa Ana Airforce Base. Soon after, he found himself piloting a B-17, better known as a Flying Fortress; a bomber with a 31-meter wingspan, numerous blind spots, and bristling with .50 caliber machine guns.
Enemy air defenses shot Kingsbury's bomber down, forcing him to bail out by parachute into the Mediterranean ocean off the coast of his Italian target.
Thirty hours of swimming later, and he found himself on the beach where three Italian women rescued him. German soldiers eventually caught up with him and shipped him off to a prison camp, eventually ending in Poland. Finally, two years later, he was freed.
Kingsbury's story is one of many mined from Orange County residents in recent years.
The museum itself isn't old, having been established in 2017. It was developed in an old barracks with worn wooden floors once walked on by freshly initiated World War II cadets.
"At that time they just didn't have a lot to work with," said Carol Singleton, supervisor of the museum. "But as people started visiting this amazing place they started to come by with their input and their items."
The collection expanded, and with the pandemic, Singleton and company had plenty of time to rethink the exhibits. Model planes of enemy and allied aircraft were donated, training tools for young pilots. A wall about the Tuskegee airmen was installed, and an exhibit about the Navajo code talkers was taken down.
"The Tuskegee airmen did not train here but the connection is that they would have trained here if it had not been for the policies of the time," Singleton said. "We give them a wall because it's very important people realize the policies of the time and why those gentlemen didn't serve here."
The idea was only to include exhibits that had a direct connection to the former airbase.
The base, which was established in 1942, spread over 1,300 acres and was a founding component of the area's future aerospace and defense economy. It included 800 buildings, including barracks, warehouses, classrooms, hospitals, churches, movie theaters and stores. At its peak, more than 26,000 service members were stationed there.
Joseph Heller of "Catch-22" fame was sent to the Santa Ana base for preflight training. Trained as a bombardier and navigator, he flew 60 combat missions in the Italian theater, returning to the U.S. to write the lauded war satire and publish it in 1961.
Hero's Hall, Singleton said, is about sharing the old stories of veterans but also putting social issues of the time in context.
Some of the new exhibits include women service members, Latinos who fought to serve in the airforce, and Chinese pilots and navigators who trained in Santa Ana.
The grand reopening will begin from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday at the OC Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.