Bomber Boys: Portraits From The Front

Presented by UWT Museum Studies Students & Bering Street Studio

June 8 – July 17, 2016
at the new Spaceworks Gallery
950 Pacific Ave. Suite 205 (Entrance on 11th) 

Opening reception: Wed. June 8, 6-8pm. Open for Third Thursday Art Walk, June 16, 5-9pm and a stop on the Art Bus!


Bering Street Studio is an exhibit development company whose owner, Stephanie Lile, is also a part-time lecturer for the University of Washington Museum Studies program. This spring she is having the Methods of Museum Interpretation class gain real-life experience by becoming an exhibit interpretive team under her mentorship to prototype and install a professional quality traveling exhibition. The students will mock-up, fully install, and showcase the exhibit and all of its interpretive elements in the main floor of the Spaceworks Gallery. The exhibit will be up through the second week of July, including through the Washington Museums Conference held in Tacoma the third week of June.

The exhibit topic is dedicated to revealing the secrets of a unique World War II stash of images and ephemera that were saved by a tail gunner who flew 59 missions in the European Theater. Students will serve as project team members responsible for each aspect of the exhibit interpretation, from writing white papers on specific subjects, to researching individuals pictured in the exhibit, to developing media, marketing, and public events. Utilizing the Spaceworks Gallery will provide a wonderful learning experience for UWT students. After the showcase event, the exhibit will travel to various venues around the country in honor of the upcoming 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the Exhibit—

Q: How large is the Exhibit?
A: Approximately 1,000 sq feet, but it can expand to 1,500 sq feet depending on the size and needs of the venue.

Q: What are some of the underlying themes?
A: The exhibit was originally inspired by the set of Captains photographs found in the collection. They were a little larger and clearer than some of the others. But as we began looking closer at some of the tiny contact prints, we found that many contained striking portraits that revealed another side of camp life and combat.

One of the strongest underlying themes is the question encapsulated by a LIFE magazine ad presented in the exhibit that asked the headline question, “How Long to Live?” It’s one of many ads of the period that was intended to pull at the heartstrings of women on the home front to inspire them to join the wartime workforce. Yet it also speaks to the worry in every bomber boy’s mind when they set off on a new mission. You can actually see it on some of their faces as the war progressed.

Another underlying theme is “the little-told story of the 12th Army Air Corps.” With the exception of the iconic book and movie Catch-22, most World War II era bomber stories such as “Memphis Belle” are based on the 8th Army Air Corps stationed in England. The 12th was responsible for liberating North Africa, Italy, Sicily, Corsica and parts of Austria. One of the little-known clinchers that helped the end war was the strategic bombing of the Brenner Pass rail line between Germany/Austria and Italy. By bombing the marshaling yards, railroad bridges, and supply dumps, the Allied Air Corps choked down the supply line that kept Axis troops active.
Q: Where did the exhibit images come from?
A: They are all from the KBL Family Collection. The collection was found in its entirety during the cleaning of a hayloft on the Lile Family farm in Gig Harbor, Washington. Keith Lile, a tail gunner, had kept the cache of photos, ephemera, and his diary for some 60 years unbeknownst to his family. Lile died in 1993, and his daughters found the cache in 1996. Since then, Keith Lile’s daughter and exhibit curator, Stephanie Lile, has been researching the collection to unlock its many hidden stories.

Q: What was the involvement of University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) Museum Studies students in the exhibit’s development?
A: Exhibit curator Stephanie Lile has been a lecturer for the Museum Studies minor at UWT since 2012. With the consent of the KBL Family to use the collection for educational purposes, Lile decided to involve her Methods of Museum Interpretation students in a “real-world” project. With the “Bomber Boys” exhibit in development, students then researched and wrote white papers on various in-depth subjects, developed program plans for interpretive elements such as spotlight talks, curriculum, and public programs, and created biographical sketches for many of the men depicted in the exhibit.

Q: Is “Bomber Boys” going to travel?
A: Yes, “Bomber Boys” is a traveling exhibition, slated to travel throughout the US for the next four years in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the end World War II in 2020. Next venues are still in negotiation but will be announced as soon they are confirmed.
About the Collection—

Q: Is everything in the exhibit from Keith Lile’s collection?
A: No. A number of items were added the help provide some context to the collection. For example, Sharon McLees of Misty Meadow Antiques lent some Air Corps clothing to the show, Joseph Govednik lent his model of a B-25, and we feature a map of 12th Army campaigns from the Library of Congress. We’ve also adapted three wartime advertisements from LIFE magazine to get visitors a better sense of the messaging and sentiments of the time. Museums who host the show are encouraged to add images and/or recollections from the World War II veterans in the Community section of the exhibit as well.
Q: How large is the collection and what’s in it?
A: The KBL Family collection includes approximately 250 images, a number of pieces of ephemera, an address book, a diary from 1945, the train trip itinerary, induction papers, and even Lile’s tickets to Pompeii and the Vatican Museum. There are also letters to Lile from his sisters and friends. Some items, such as “The Soldier’s Guide to Rome,” is a wonderful link to a very current story—that of the Monuments Men recently brought to light by author Robert Edsel and the Monuments Men movie starring George Clooney.

Q: What kinds of things does Lile’s diary reveal?
A: It’s actually a pretty short date span, dating from March 1945 to the end of the war in May 1945. Lile wasn’t terribly profuse in his entries, but he does make note of some very important occurrences. For example, it appears that the diary was purchased while on rest leave in Rome with a primary intent of tracking the second half of his mission listings. It took a while to discover the folded mission list chronicling Lile’s first 36 missions because it was tucked into the front cover of the book. But that mission list coupled with Lile’s documentation of each mission flown thereafter, made it apparent that he was on a count down to the end of his 60-mission tour. By the end of the war, what had started out as a standard of 25 missions to complete a tour, government officials had raised the bar to 60. Lile made 59 missions before the war ended on May 7, 1945. He was just one short of a full tour so had to wait until July/August to catch a “magic carpet” ride home on a U.S. troop ship.

Lile also noted the death of Mussolini and President Roosevelt, as well as his break-up with fiancé “Betty” who he’d become engaged to before shipping out.

Q: Are all of the images black and white?
A: Yes. Although many are have a sepia tone.

Q: Where did the images come from and did Lile take them all?
A: Another important revelation from Lile’s diary was that there was a printing “shack” on base where he would apparently go to help “Berman” (thought to be Charlie Berman) process film and print photographs. Knowing Lile, when the base was moved from Corsica to Italy in April of 1945, he likely swept all the images left in the shack into a box and saved them. Many images are printed at multiple exposures and as contact prints, which is why researching them has been a continuing challenge. There were about 50 negatives in the collection as well, some marked in envelopes with names written on them. There is no way to know which photographs, if any, Lile actually took.

Q: Will the collection be on display at every venue?
A: No. It depends on the venue. Selected elements of the exhibit will be on display at its opening venue, the Harbor History Museum. Due to the fragility of the collection, it will only be displayed at other venues as negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
About the Bomber Boys and their planes—

Q: What’s a squadron and why does it matter?
A: A squadron is a fighting unit made up of about 250 men. In the case of “Bomber Boys” the squadron featured is the 445th bomb squadron, which was a unit of the 321st bomb group, that was part of the 57th bomb wing of the 12th Army Air Corps. Bombers in a squadron flew in formation to cover for each other as they dropped bombs over a target.

Q: What types of planes did they fly?
A: The 445th flew B-25 Mitchells, made by North American Aviation. These were medium bombers with a basic altitude ceiling of about 10,000 feet. Each bomber carried a crew of six in contrast to the larger B-17s that carried nine.

Q: Why are there no people of color in the exhibit?
A: Because at the time, the Army Air Corps was a segregated system. There were, however, some Tuskegee Airmen stationed in Italy, although for the most part, they didn’t share camps with their white counterparts.
Q; How many men were killed in action?
A: According to the 445th squadron records—which we find are not 100% accurate—at least 29 men were killed in action, while at least 1 was known to have been taken prisoner of war. In all reality, the numbers were likely higher and research continues to gain greater accuracy.
About the Popular Culture and Interactions of the Time—

Q: What movies would the real Bomber Boys have seen?
A: We know from diary entries and LIFE magazine ads, that the following movies were shown on base and were popular at the time:
Casablanca (1942)
The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
The White Cliffs of Dover (1944)
The Heavenly Body (1944)
The Yellow Rose of Texas (1944)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
Q: What did the bomber boys do for fun?
A: When on stand down or rest leave, pictures, pamphlets, and diary entries tell us that the men played volleyball, baseball, ping pong and went to shows of the Air Corps band “The Michellaires.” When on leave, the men had access to roller skating, dances, and sight seeing at such places as Pompeii and the Vatican. One of the places Air Corps men went to while on leave in Rome was called the “Tiber Terrace.” This building still stands and is now a riverside country club with a pool instead of a roller skating rink.

Q: Did they make friends with the locals?
A: In many cases, yes. On Corsica, one young boy, Dominique Taddei made friends with many of the bomber boys and grew up to become a World War II historian who has written two books on the American liberation of Corsica and France (in French). There is also documentation that many of the men hired Italian women to do their laundry to help boost the local economy of the devastated country.

Additional Information—
A set of white papers written by UWT students is available on topics such as base locations, B-25s, clothing and uniforms worn by airmen, the Air Corps mail system, 12th Army Air Corps campaigns, and medical issues that airmen faced.