The Warhawk Air Museum holds rare fighter jets and thousands of pieces of war memorabilia from WWII.



Japanese Parachute Wedding Dress & Fighter planes: The Warhawk Air Museum 

Director Sue Paul Has A Passion For The Personal Collection Of Stories And War Memorabilia Salvaged From The World War II &  Cold War Era

The Animated Fighter Planes Of WW II [Photo Credit: Jim Raeder]

The Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho has rare fighter jets and thousands of pieces of war memorabilia, but what really makes a trip to this museum one of a kind is the powerful and emotional connection visitors feel to the veterans highlighted throughout the museum's two wings.

“People come for the airplanes, but they stay hours for the stories,” said Executive Director Sue Paul, “the personal collections. We have personal stories of Americans who served our country, from childhood photographs and wedding albums... By the time people leave here several hours later, they have a very emotional attachment to our veterans they didn't have until they came here. That's what this museum is about.”

One such story revolves around a beautiful wedding dress made from the materials taken from a Japanese parachute. Guests are drawn to the spectacular display, the delicate but impactful piece. But what truly makes the dress memorable is the story behind it, the people, simply remembering the humanity behind such a violent time in history.

After World War II ended, Lenard Rutan was sent to occupational Japan, part of the military that were sent to rebuild the country. Rutan came across a giant warehouse filled with non-issued Japanese military equipment, all brand new. He was able to bring home a parachute.

When he fell in love with a woman in Idaho named Nancy, they started discussing marriage, despite their lack of money. How would they afford a wedding dress? Luckily, Nancy's friend was a seamstress and said she could use the silk from inside the parachute.

And now it's not just an item to remember the war, but a way to remember the people who took part in it. To remember that they were more than just soldiers. That life in America went on before, during and after the wars.

Receiving items like the parachute wedding dress is not uncommon for Paul and her husband, John. In fact, the couple opened the Warhawk Air Museum because of all the boxes of memorabilia and photos people dropped off with them back when they first moved to Idaho in the late 80s. 

Helicopter From War On Display At The Warhawk Air Museum [Courtesy/Visit Idaho]
Authentic Women's Work Badges From WW II Era [Photo Credit: Jim Raeder]

When the couple first moved to Idaho their hangar full of rare WWII fighter airplanes was getting a lot of attention. People would stop by to see their two Curtiss P-40 Warhawks P-51C Mustang – of which there are only four left flying in the world.

Eventually, Paul started to notice that people were leaving boxes of World War II uniforms with notes about the items. They were people's grandfather's medals, their memories, their family histories... For Paul, it felt wrong to personally take these items, which were so special and personal.

For a year, Paul worked to create a non-profit, in hopes of creating a museum that could treasure and preserve the items the couple had collected. The museum opened in 1989 and has continued to grow.

There are currently two wings in the museum. The first is a 20,000 square foot area devoted to the World War II era and life in America during the 1940s. The section continues to grow as they receive more and more collections from people's attics. The second wing – which is located behind an exact replica of the Berlin Wall – is dedicated to the Cold War era, both the Korean and Vietnam War. Then, of course, there are the fighter jets.

And while guests often marvel at the large collections of items – it's the personal touch of the museum that truly stands out. It's not just medals. It's medals of a World War II veteran who also provided his journal, photos of his family, items from his childhood... There's stories of survival. There's a display on Women Airforce Service Pilots. But the museum doesn't tell the stories – the people do.

“It's about people. It's not about things. We have the rare planes, the interesting technology... But what we really have is the story of our country's people,” said Paul. “And that's why I love it so much. Every day it's about people. It's about men, women and children. It's about patriotism and love of country. It's about sacrifice. It's about personal journals, personal thoughts... It's a very truthful experience. It makes it pretty powerful.”

Of course, just like the veterans, Paul and her husband also have personal stories. The two both got into fighter planes as kids. Her husband had been collecting them since high school, back when the World War II fighters weren't really all too popular. But he restored all three and even flew them. 

Rare Fighter Plane For View At Warhawk Museum Hangar [Courtesy/Visit Idaho]
Wedding Dress Memorabilia Made From Parts Of A Japanese Parachute [Photo Credit: Jim Raeder]
Vehicle Exhibit Recollecting Memories Of Wartime [Courtesy/Visit Idaho]

“They're just beautiful,” said Paul. “During World War II there were different airplanes designed for different fighting areas – their paint schemes and certain parts are all different. The fighter airplanes leased to the British during WWII were painted the color of sand and have shark markings on them. This was because they were going to be flying over the desert. The P-40s have more of a green camo, since they flew over jungles and grasslands. They're just all beautiful. Now, all planes sort of look the same. It's hard to tell them apart if you're not a real expert on aircrafts...”

It's this passion for World War II fighter airplanes, for history, for veterans and their stories that make Paul and her husband the perfect co-founders of a museum. It's what makes their museum stand out above the rest. In fact, they are even part of the Veterans History Project, in conjunction with the Library of Congress, working to tape as many veterans as possible, “so that future generations will understand we owe our freedom to the bravery and sacrifice of those who served.”

It's this attention to the veteran's stories – their personal recollections of the war and their life – that has made the Warhawk Air Museum a destination for over 3,000 school children throughout the year (“teachers can't teach what is in here”).

“It's one of the most unique and emotional experiences that anyone will ever have in a museum of this sort,” said Paul. “It's about a time in our country's history and what it was like for the people who lived through it. You're not just looking at a piece of machinery. You spend hours reading personal stories and looking at collections... The people are so incredible. What they have saved... We create these wonderful memorials for them.” 

Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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