A picture is all that is left of the Michigan, a World War II B-24 bomber plane with the University of Michigan’s iconic football stadium painted on its nose.
Ray Hunter, chairman of the Yankee Air Museum’s board of directors, explained the museum’s initiative to unearth information regarding the aircraft. The museum is located in Willow Run Airport in Belleville, Mich.
“We’ve had photos at the Yankee Air Museum of this aircraft for a lot of years,” Hunter said. “And we tried several years ago to find out if we could ever find anybody who flew on the airplane or was a crew member or worked on it in some way.”
The museum came up short, unable to unearth the history of the Michigan.
Hunter and the Yankee Air Museum are seeking a story about the Michigan in an attempt to compile more World War II history for future generations of ROTC cadets to learn from.
“Next year is the 75th anniversary of the cessation of World War II,” Hunter said. “Most of the crew members on World War II aircrafts are 90-something. It’s unlikely that we’ll find a crew member, but we might find one of their families. That’s what we’re really looking for.”
The Yankee Air Museum is invested in preserving first hand accounts of American military history. Hunter said that they often host veterans of every discipline, each with tales of their own lives to share.
“They all have tremendous stories to tell,” Hunter said.
Hunter said the University is rich with stories, many of which intertwine with those of the Air Force and American military.
“We know that at least one or many more of the people on the Michigan served in World War II,” Hunter said. “But beyond that, thousands of University of Michigan students served in World War II.”
Like many of its kind, the plane was melted down for its metal following the end of the war.
“It’s kind of ironic because during World War II, a lot of families were asked to donate their pots and pans so they could be turned into airplanes,” Hunter said. “Then after the war, airplanes were melted down and turned back into pots and pans.”
Many of the country’s B-24s, American bomber aircrafts, were produced locally in a Ford Motor Company production plant called Willow Run, a bomber aircraft production plant run by Henry Ford.
“There were around 18,000 of those airplanes built during World War II, and nearly 8,000 of those were built right here in Willow Run,” Hunter said. “Of those 18,000, there’s only about 10 or 15 left. Of the airplanes that were built at Willow Run, there’s only four left.”
Due to the scarcity of planes like the Michigan, Hunter and others have only been able to decipher bits and pieces of its origin story. The Michigan was stationed in the Philippines with the 43rd bomb group. The nose art was done by renowned Massachusetts painter Sarkis Bartigia.
“Nose art was very popular during World War II,” Hunter said. “Nearly every airplane had nose art. Some of them were very crude, but others were quite sophisticated and highly detailed.”
Hunter noted the art on the Michigan was above average. The nose art would have been painted after the Michigan and its crew had already been stationed in the Philippines. The men had to agree on a design and name for the plane. For this reason, Hunter and the Yankee Air Museum link the Michigan to the University with near complete certainty.
“We believe that at least one of the crew members on the Michigan had a connection to the University in general or the football program in particular,” Hunter said.
Hunter said he was compelled to continue the search for the Michigan’s true history because, as an Air Force veteran and former commander of the University’s Air Force ROTC, he has a special tie to the University’s military history himself.
“We present a picture and a small stipend to one of the students in the Air Force ROTC program every year,” Hunter said. “We call it the Liberator Award. The B-24 was called the Liberator Bomber.”
A junior at Eastern Michigan University and member of the U-M ROTC program, Joseph Markell was the award’s most recent recipient.
“I think the main thing behind [the award] is you just have to show a high amount of potential in your leadership ability and also have a high academic aptitude as well,” Markell said.
Markell said he was honored to have been recognized in this way. In addition to the scholarship, Markell was grateful for the award’s reassurance that he was on the right track.
“It reinforced my belief that what I was doing was the right thing in the program and that all my hard work in school was being recognized,” Markell said.
Though he’d been aware that Willow Run was a famous aircraft production plant during World War II, Markell said he hadn’t known anything about the Michigan before receiving the Liberator Award.
“The first time I heard about (the Michigan) was when I received that award,” Markell said. “However, it did get me really interested in it. I know a lot more about it now.”
Engineering sophomore Ronan Egan is a cadet in the University’s detachment of Air Force ROTC. He said he is often reminded of the program’s history through his experience in ROTC.
“It’s just cool history and tradition, everything you do,” Egan said. “You’ll walk into a room and see trophies from the 1980s of different events that we still do.”
Egan said he believes these reminders are beneficial to overall morale. The traditions emphasize how the program is carrying on a legacy.
“It’ll inspire people to work hard,” Egan said. “All of the tradition that’s been at Michigan for the past I’m not exactly sure how long.”
Markell seconded Egan’s account. He explained cadets are held to a high standard in regard to knowing and understanding the history of the positions they anticipate holding one day.
“A big part of being in Air Force ROTC is learning the history of all airmen,” Markell said. “History is a big part of our detachment for sure.”