When Stephanie Lile and sister Kathy Hall began cleaning out their family’s Gig Harbor barn in 1996, they were expecting to find the usual accumulation of receipts and papers collected over the lifetimes of their parents.
What they were not expecting to find was an old, World War II mission diary and a collection of photographs taken during their father’s tour as a gunner for the 445th Bombardment Squadron of the 12th Army Air Corps, primarily stationed on Corsica and in Italy.
“My dad never talked about his time in the war,” Stephanie Lile, exhibit curator, said. “All of these pictures were secreted away for 60 years.”
Lile’s father, Keith Lile, died in 1993.
The photographs and memorabilia found in the barn that day have been transformed into Bomber Boys: Portraits from the Front, a traveling exhibit on display at the Harbor History Museum through Sept. 4.
My dad never talked about his time in the war. All of these pictures were secreted away for 60 years.
Stephanie Lile, exhibit curator
Lile, a professor of museum studies at the University of Washington Tacoma, had her students working alongside her on the project, researching the men pictured to provide biographies to accompany their photographs.
“We’ve done research on almost all of these pictures to find out who they are,” Lile said. “We’re discovering there was this whole other life these guys had.”
Lile’s father, one of 15 children, left South Dakota at age 14 and traveled to Washington state to stay with an uncle in Puyallup in order to attend high school. He joined the Air Corps in 1943 at 19 instead of waiting to be drafted, and traveled across the United States to visit his family before attending basic training in Florida.
We’ve done research on almost all of these pictures to find out who they are. We’re discovering there was this whole other life these guys had.
At age 21, Keith Lile joined a group of mostly East Coast men in the 445th Bombardment Squadron and joined the war as a gunner, flying 59 missions, one short of a tour, which meant he had to take a boat home to the U.S. at the end of the war instead of a plane.
He moved to Gig Harbor in 1976 and worked first selling insurance and then real estate, all the while remaining active in the Gig Harbor community and rotary. While Lile never remembers her father talking about his time in the war, she suspects that her older siblings — she’s the youngest of five — might have heard more stories.
However, she does remember one quirk of her dad’s: He always sat facing the door with his back to the wall.
This is a real conversation starter. There’s so many memories that people can share about their own experiences. This does talk about Gig Harbor’s World War II history. Bomber Boys could go to any town throughout the country and be relevant.
Alphild Dick, marketing and events coordinator for Harbor History Museum
“It’s interesting how these guys remember their time in the war,” she said. “I think a lot of them were ingrained in their brain to not talk.”
Inspired by her father’s story, Lile has written a young adult novel — “The Tail Gunner” — based on his experiences.
The primary feature of the exhibit are portraits taken by the men of the 445th of their fellow troops that Lile has blown up onto canvasses. Alongside these portraits are memorabilia and items from the war to give visitors of the exhibit a feel for what life was like for these troops, including Keith Lile’s mission diary.
The exhibit opened to the public July 27 and the response from visitors has been positive and powerful, said Alphild Dick, marketing and events coordinator for the museum.
“We knew it was going to be an excellent exhibit going in,” Dick said. “I saw so much emotional response (from people) to the experience of walking through the temporary gallery.”
Dick added that the museum has received comments that this exhibit is one of the “most emotionally evocative exhibits” put on by the museum so far.
There’s a lot of smiling faces, but what’s behind the smile? For a lot of these guys it was fear. They were trying to get together a good picture to send home.
“This is a real conversation starter. There’s so many memories that people can share about their own experiences,” Dick said. “This does talk about Gig Harbor’s World War II history. World War II also has a universal interest. Bomber Boys could go to any town throughout the country and be relevant.”
In addition to the exhibit, the museum will be offering additional programming to supplement Bomber Boys.
On Aug. 18, Lile will give a lecture on the backstory of finding and putting together Bomber Boys, and on Sept. 2 the museum will host a Family Fly In, complete with B-25 Mitchell bomber replicas.
“We are beyond thrilled to have this exhibit here at the museum,” Dick said. “It has just been a huge pleasure to work with Stephanie. She’s an enormously talented curator.”
For Lile, the work on the exhibit is ongoing as she looks for the next stop for Bomber Boys and continues to unravel the mysteries around the men of the 445th Bombardment Squadron.
“There’s a lot of smiling faces, but what’s behind the smile? For a lot of these guys it was fear. They were trying to get together a good picture to send home,” Lile said. “We live in an electric age where there’s a lot of information out there, but a lot of people don’t know how to use it. Some of it will be lost forever.”
Bomber Boys: Portraits from the Front
The exhibit will be on display at the Harbor History Museum through Sept. 4.
For more information on the exhibit or the museum, call 253-858-6722 or visit harborhistorymuseum.org.
The Harbor History Museum is located at 4121 Harborview Drive.