The first genesis of the heritage display took form at Chanute AFB, Illinois, in the late 1980s, as senior enlisted members of the fire academy pulled aside several of the school's older firefighting vehicles as they retired and accessioned them into the USAF Museum System.
When the fire school realigned from Chanute to Goodfellow in 1993 the trucks accompanied the move, with the idea that self-help among the school’s staff would restore and then care for the vehicles while Goodfellow’s old fire house, recently vacated upon the construction of a new fire house, would be refurbished as a museum in which to display the trucks.
Unfortunately, the Military Construction appropriation that funded construction of the new fire house required the demolition of the old building. As to the trucks, the plan to restore these through self-help never materialized. Instead, they sat unprotected on a corner of the school’s hose pad, where they continued to deteriorate beneath the hot west Texas sun.
The next genesis came in 1997, when we developed a plan to restore the trucks and display them beneath covered pavilions along the troopwalk, so that students could view them daily on their way to and from class. There, the trucks would make an open-air exhibit of military firefighting history that would become, in effect, a passive part of the students’ curriculum. Unfortunately, the plan failed to attract funding.
Two years later an Operational Readiness Inspection found the wing deficient in its care and display of Air Force historical property — that is, the eight historic firefighting vehicles on loan from the Air Force Museum. In response, several key leaders at the squadron and group level urged getting rid of the trucks — and with them, the ORI finding — by coordinating with the Air Force Museum to dispose of the trucks through the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office, or DRMO.
Taking an opposing view, key members of what would become the Military Firefighter Heritage Foundation (MFHF) pointed out that several of these trucks were one– or last-of-a-kind vehicles. More, Goodfellow was home to the DoD fire academy. If the trucks were not displayed here, then where?
The argument carried and the trucks stayed, although the problem of funding their restoration remained. As a start, the wing agreed to fund the restoration of the smallest and best preserved of the trucks, the Jeep and the R-deuce, while others organized a private foundation to fund the rest. The result was the MFHF, a 501(c)3 corporation established in Texas in 2001. Over the next three years, through aggressive marketing among firefighting groups across the country, the MFHF raised enough funds not only to restore the remaining vehicles but to begin development of a fallen military firefighter memorial. During the same period the wing provided end-of-year funds to erect shelters to protect and display the trucks. Private funding from base supporters in San Angelo is affixing bronze plaques to native stone at each pavilion, providing informative signage relating the historical significance of each truck. Finally, a local maintenance contract ensures the continued preservation of the trucks in accordance with museum standards.
That’s the vision for converting a once-barren troopwalk into a lasting display of America’s military firefighting heritage. Dedicating the first of the pavilions, Lt Col Pat Smith captured the vision perfectly. “When we ask the young men and women who graduate from the DoD Fire Academy to go into harm’s way, when they are the first to face human tragedy, when they are the ones to make order out of chaos, three things will most likely make the difference: physical and mental toughness, personal courage, and esprit de corps. All of this effort is for them — to pass along a sense of heritage that binds them together when things get tough, so that the 17th Training Wing was awarded the 2004 Air Education and Training Command Heritage Award for the Military Firefighter Heritage Foundation's Vehicle Display.