The Enlisted Heritage Research Institute: Honoring enlisted contributions to air power

  • Published
  • By Joe Panza
  • Air University Foundation
Just about everyone who has been on Air Force active duty for any length of time, and many civilians, have undoubtedly heard of the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Relatively few know about another world-class Air Force facility, the Enlisted Heritage Research Institute - more commonly referred to as the Enlisted Heritage Hall - that houses exhibits and artifacts honoring the contributions of enlisted Airmen throughout aviation history.

Located on Gunter Annex adjacent to the Air Force Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy, the heritage hall serves as a repository for a significant array of historical memorabilia and source documents.

The hall has evolved from humble beginnings in 1984 when a collection of historical artifacts began to accumulate in the lobby of the Senior NCO Academy. As the collection burgeoned, it became apparent that a standalone facility would be needed to properly store and display the valuable artifacts. A building was identified that could be made available, and the decision was made to initiate a redesign and renovation effort to modernize what had been a mess hall originally built in 1942.

In 1986, the facility officially became the Enlisted Heritage Hall, with Chief Master Sgt. Wayne Fisk named as its first director.

Outside the entrance of the facility, a display of monuments honor those who served during various campaigns, operations and significant events, including prominent display of monuments paying tribute to those who have defended America from the early days of the Minutemen to the enlisted pilots of World War II, the Korean War, Bosnia and those who died in the terrorist attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

A unique monument recognizes the sacrifice and duty of the military working dogs in Southeast Asia.

Inside the facility, the illuminated Medal of Honor display, embraced by a large American flag and surrounded by images of Air Force enlisted Medal of Honor recipients, pays tribute to Air Force heroes and is the focal point of a large array of Air Force memorabilia.

Visitors can take a walking tour through aviation history. Bill Chivalette, curator of the heritage hall since 1998, oversees the development of displays that chronicle the exploits of enlisted warriors throughout the history of aviation - from the days of aerial-observation balloons in the Civil War to the war against terrorism in the Middle East.

Among the exhibits is a re-creation of the battle scene in Vietnam where Medal of Honor recipient Airman 1st Class William Pitsenbarger tended to wounded soldiers and fought off the enemy. Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger, who was killed in action at Lima Site 85 in Laos and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, is honored for heroism. So, too, is Sgt. John Levitow, who earned his Medal of Honor when, despite multiple wounds, he threw an ignited flare from an AC-47 saving the aircraft and crew. A mannequin of a prisoner of war sitting in an exact mockup of a cell in the Hanoi Hilton, designed by former Southeast Asia POWs, evokes reactions from visitors.

"We do not put an exhibit on the floor without extensive research to make sure each detail is historically accurate," said Mr. Chivalette. "Years of research and study have gone into some of our displays, and many have won the Air Force Heritage award, the highest honor that is given to facilities like ours."

A Wall of Achievers contains photographs of enlisted men and women who went on to high office or became celebrities, including Chuck Norris, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Stewart, Alan Ladd, Flip Wilson and Charlton Heston.

While these exhibits are the outward signs of the work done by the heritage hall, their primary mission is to provide archival information and teaching displays to support study, student research and curriculum of the Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education.

Since the early 1990s, the hall has accumulated an extensive library of historical reports and documents. The hall has seen its role expand exponentially as the enlisted professional military education community has come to depend on this valuable source of historical information.

"Recently added touch-screen computers and the inclusion of more than 200,000 pages of accessible historical data on our web site have added a new dimension to our research capability," said Mr. Chivalette.

Chief Master Sgt. Tomas Young, the current director of the heritage hall, had nothing but praise for the work of his staff.

"Staff Sergeants Rachel Rapp and Joseph Godfre, with the help of volunteer "Hoot" Gibson, have put the heritage hall on the map. What they have created rivals the finest museum-quality exhibits you will find anywhere," he said.

The heritage hall has twice won the Air Force Association Gill Robb Wilson Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to national defense in the field of arts, letters and media relations, and has won the AETC Heritage Project Award 13 consecutive years and the Air Force Heritage Project Award five times, presented by Headquarters United States Air Force and Air Education and Training Command.

"In the spring of 2004, we dedicated a park on our grounds to honor former director Chief Master Sgt. Wayne Fisk," said Chief Young. "Not only do we owe a great debt to Chief Fisk for his vision in creating the heritage hall, we paid tribute to him as a true American hero. Wayne earned two Silver Stars while serving four tours in Southeast Asia. He participated in many combat rescues and was a member of the task force on the Son Tay raid deep into North Vietnam to rescue our POWs. Chief Fisk was the last man off of Koh Tang Island during the rescue of the crew of the SS Mayaguez. He is truly a warrior's warrior.

"We were getting pretty short of space," said Chief Young. "We completed a 3,000 square-foot expansion of the building a few years ago that has allowed us to add additional displays and artifacts, but our ongoing challenge is funding the development of new exhibits. Our exhibits and monuments are made possible through the generous contributions of active and retired military personnel, the general public and organizations that realize the importance of preserving the legacy and heritage of the enlisted force."

The newest wing, designated the "Berlin to Baghdad Wing," houses an array of displays. Of particular significance is the Berlin Airlift exhibit that incorporates avatar technology and can be programmed to speak in a number of languages.

"This impressive exhibit is one of the favorites of our visitors," said Chief Young. For more information on the EHRI, visit their website at, or call 953-3174.