New Museum Exhibit Tells The Story Of Utah WWII Bomber Pilot
Her dad was Brigadier General Leon Packer. During World War II, his home was often in the clouds.
“He was a B-24 pilot,” she said, while standing in front of one of the bombers at the museum. “He kept a log — a daily log. And so he’d say, ‘Well, we flew over and took out a bridge here.’ He flew D-Day. He flew Rome.”
Some of those stories he passed along to his family —others, Toronto and her siblings pieced together from what their dad left behind.
“He writes in his log that all four engines were essentially shot out,” she said.
It was August of 1943. Leon Packer’s bomber had just finished a run on a submarine pen off the coast of France when they were attacked by Nazi fighters.
“That’s the ‘I can’t believe’ story, really,” Toronto said. “His plane was pretty well shot up. He has a description of it in his log. He talks about all the engines being shot up, and the ailerons being taken out, and the fuel lines being taken out. The radar was gone. They thought that they would have to bail out over the English Channel.”
The engines were on fire. The navigator bailed, and Packer heard one of the engines begin to make noise. He ran back to the cockpit, and was able to coax that one engine back to life. The crew dumped everything they could, trying to drop weight.
Packer led the bomber back to the English coast. They were so low that the landing gear was torn off by hedgerows, but he was able to crashland the plane safely. Everyone survived.
The stories Toronto can tell about her father’s wartime experiences are nearly endless. He was even involved in the planning of D-Day, the Allied invasion of mainland Europe.
“He was Director of Operations for the 389th, and had three flight groups under him,” she said. “They were all involved in planning how the air attack would go.”
The family heard parts of that story, as well as many others — but unlike many who fought in the war, their dad came home with a treasure trove of items. It turns out that when it came to his time in the military, her dad was a bit of a collector.
Toronto carries a couple of large binders, overflowing with photos, her dad’s logs, and a wide assortment of other documents from his service. She even has pictures her dad took of that bomber he crashlanded on the southwest corner of England, as well as photos from Packer’s time at the Pentagon, where he helped transition the Army Air Corps to the U.S. Air Force.
But those pictures are only the beginning.
“He had a couple of wooden crates that he came home with, and most of it was there,” Toronto said. “Our mother took really good care of it too, though.”
Leon Packer passed away back in 1985. Three years ago, his wife followed.
“When our mother passed, we wanted his story to be told,” said Toronto. Instead of dividing up their father’s items among her and her siblings, they decided to put them to use.
Parked next to the B-24 at the Hill Aerospace Museum is a large display, encased in glass — a new exhibit, dedicated to the story of Brigadier General Leon Packer.
“This is part of what he has,” Toronto said, pointing to a leather flightsuit, one of the largest items in the display. “There aren’t many that see the complete flightsuit. His life preserver and his goggles, everything here is original.”
The museum says the number of items Packer brought back from the war isn’t something they see every day.
“From what we see here, that was pretty significant,” said Aaron Clark, Director of the Hill Aerospace Museum. “The amount they had, and the condition that the items were in. But that’s not the important part. The important part is the individual, and the story we have to tell.”
The display features items like that flightsuit, as well as medals, rank insignia, and even images of Packer’s D-Day maps — and it’s not just the story of his military career, but his life.
“He kept things,” Toronto said. “Things were important to him. They grew up poor. He says they didn’t know it, but they grew up poor.”
The exhibit also includes an interactive screen, where visitors can watch videos bringing Packer’s story to life.
The museum plans to take proposals for other displays, just like this one. Starting in January, their website will list criteria and begin accepting submissions for more in a series of their “Local Heroes” exhibits.
“We know there’s a lot of Utah airmen who have served with significant contributions and stories to tell,” Clark said. “So this is the first we hope of many.”
Because while the museum may just be pieces of metal, the stories behind them can make sure a person’s memory never fades.
“He was a great patriot, he was a great family man, he was a great father, so we wanted his story to be able to be told,” Toronto said.
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