The strange things restorers find in old aircraft.

The gum wrapper is modern, but the medallion, scraps of paper, and builder's plate (with the aircraft's serial number) go back to the Hawker Hurricane's years of operation in World War II. (Eric Long)
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Details That Set the Stage
Some of the stowaways uncovered at Garber illuminate not the history of the individual aircraft but rather the time and place in which it served. Last July, intern Eric Lawrence was cleaning out a Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk, a small, airship-based fighter that the Navy used in the 1930s for reconnaissance patrols along the U.S. coasts. When he was working in the fuselage tail cone, Lawrence came across a broken pencil, inscribed with the words "Hoover for President, 1928."

Evocative items seemed to pour out of the sole surviving Japanese Aichi M6A1 Seiran, a World War II bomber designed to be stashed in a submarine, its wings folded, until the sub surfaced for launch. Allied forces discovered a Seiran at the Fukuyama training base after World War II and brought it to California on a U.S. carrier. It was eventually donated to the Smithsonian.

The restoration "was an unusually long project," says Nazzaro, lasting from 1989 to 2000. "It's probably the most accurately restored and one of the finest restorations of any Japanese World War II aircraft in the world. You get inside that airplane and you go right back to 1945."

During the process of removing, cleaning, and cataloging every bolt and rivet in the Seiran, a number of items turned up. "We scraped up the dirt in the bilge, filtered and cleaned it, and found these artifacts," says Nazzaro, holding up several tools and plastic bags filled with metal scraps. One of the tools is a hand-made bucking bar, which is placed on the other side of a piece of metal being riveted in order to dampen the shock of the rivet gun. "You can see an actual finger notch here," says Nazzaro, gripping the Seiran tool to show how fingers fit the bucking bar. "It was probably made for a small hand, maybe a woman or a student. That tells a story for me."

The metal scraps the restorers found in the Seiran are small and round and have sharp edges. "Someone probably realized he needed a hole drilled through a bulkhead but didn't have a hole saw," Nazzaro says. "He used a standard drill instead, and drilled 50 or so holes close together and then knocked it out. He didn't even bother to smooth the edges so it wouldn't cut whatever wires were passing through here. An American airplane would have had a rubber grommet around that hole."

In an inboard-wing fuel tank, restorers found inspection progress records, a worker time card, and a warehouse receipt.

Nazzaro believes the artifacts in the Seiran provide clues to the mood prevailing in wartime Japan. The material the restorers discovered, he says, shows "their urgency, how really desperate they were to get this flying. It speaks to the level of quality in their factories."

Mysteries remain. One of the forms had a handwritten note on it, which translates to "Yesterday's thought. Today's thought. There is no difference." Is that a sign of dedication and focus, or of demoralizing boredom?

Details That Don't Fit
And then there are the finds that no one can account for.

Beneath the pilot's seat of an elderly glider, a Bowlus 1-S-2100 Senior Albatross built in 1933, restorers found a linen handkerchief, delicately embroidered with flowers. Says Bob McLean: "It looks like something a wealthy person would have carried with them—but that's just my impression."

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