Charles Runion’s small Tennessee aviation museum is filled with what most folks would consider junk, but he’s no hoarder. Wings Remembered is an unparalleled collection of mainly U.S. World War II artifacts recovered from crash sites and through donations of flight gear, uniforms, letters, diaries, medals and photos from the families of long-gone veterans. Cockpit sections, engine parts, a Norden bombsight and bombardier’s compartment, rusty landing gear, crumpled wing and fuselage skins with insignias still visible… Runion has everything from a 12-foot-tall B-24 vertical stabilizer to an R-2800 valve rocker arm from a P-47 shot down during the Battle of the Bulge.
The rocker arm was in fact donated by me, and many of Runion’s relics come from people who also have crash remnants or a granddad’s leather jacket in the attic. (I first heard of Runion’s collection from a cousin who contributed her father’s gear from his days as a B-29 radioman.) Runion also makes frequent trips to crash sites when he’s in Europe on business (his company manufactures precision metal parts), and he has a network of amateur wreck hunters, particularly in Germany, to feed him parts. “Fortunately for us,” he says, “pieces of American aircraft are essentially worthless [to the Germans]. As far as they’re concerned, the valuable stuff is Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf parts.”
Runion’s single most noteworthy relic is a data plate that has been confirmed to have come from one of Doolittle’s Raiders. The B-25 landed in Siberia, and 50 years later a friend of Runion’s found the severed cockpit section lying on a disused part of the largely abandoned Russian base. It had been totally stripped and then crushed by a tracked vehicle—probably a tank—and virtually all that remained was the unnoticed data plate.
Though Runion hopes to find space and a grant to support a larger public museum, his collection is currently open by appointment only, in a 3,000-square-foot space attached to his offices in Lebanon, about 30 miles east of Nashville: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (615) 444-7719 to set up a visit.