OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. — A retired lieutenant colonel and a small army of airmen have saved irreplaceable artifacts from floodwater that covered a third of an Air Force base south of Omaha.
Mike Hoskins told the Omaha World-Herald that the historical treasures of the 55th Wing were locked inside the wing historian’s office and other offices at Offutt Air Force Base as the Missouri River water rose March 16. Historian John McQueney was at his home miles away, and Hoskins knew he had little time to wait. So he called in base firefighters to break down doors.
The late-winter floods that struck several Plains states breached or overtopped levees, caused more than $3 billion in damage and killed at least three people, officials have said.
McQueney and Hoskins talked over their phones about priorities as the floodwater climbed higher. First among the rescued items were two on loan from the Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio: a giant aerial reconnaissance camera from the 1940s and a propeller from a World War II-vintage P-51 Mustang fighter.
Other items included copies of letters written during World War I by Lt. Jarvis Offutt, the base's Omaha-born namesake.
They took away artifacts from the 55th Wing's early days as a World War II fighter unit and from the wing's Cold War days of flying shadowy observation missions.
McQueney also advised them to save certain historical files from his cabinets, including papers connected to the construction of the Glenn L. Martin bomber plant at the base just before World War II. Two of the B-29 bombers later were dubbed "Enola Gay" and "Bockscar" before dropping atomic bombs on Japan.
The airmen first tried to pick and choose what artifacts to place in Hoskins' car and two pickup trucks. Eventually they became less selective.
"We just grabbed everything and threw it in the car," said Hoskins, now a civilian who works in the wing's Plans and Programs office. "If it looked old, we grabbed it."
“These guys did us proud,” said the president of the 55th Wing’s alumni group, Joe Spivey, about Hoskins, McQueney and the rescue team. “They saved the history so it can be enjoyed by everyone.”