PAUL ALLEN IS STARING UP AT THE BARREL of an enormous gun–more like a cannon and more than twice his height. In the newly opened second hangar of his Flying Heritage Collection, the billionaire Microsoft cofounder points at an 88mm Flak 37, Nazi Germany’s most feared piece of artillery during World War II. Allen owns three of the estimated two dozen left in the world, and his are all in full working order.
“The 88s were the first thing we got, right?” Allen asks Adrian Hunt, the curator of his museum, a half-hour drive from Seattle. “When my father came under fire in World War II, that was actually the thing that fired at him.”
Allen’s late father, Kenneth, landed in Normandy the day after D-Day. In 1945 he and his fellow infantrymen of the 501st Quartermaster Railhead Company were bombarded near Remagen, Germany by Nazi soldiers firing 88s loaded with 20-pound shells. Kenneth Allen survived . He returned from overseas more taciturn than when he left, with a Bronze Star and haunting memories of comrades who would never come home.
As Allen walks past his collection of perfectly preserved World War II planes, weapons and tanks, one of the best in the world, the 60-year-old reels off from memory stories of each relic’s chance discovery. “This one, this Messerschmitt, was on a beach in France buried in a sand dune,” he says, pointing at a monoplane with a swastika on its tail.
He stops next at the Ilyushin IL-2M3 Sturmovik, a Soviet war bird nicknamed Black Death by the Germans. “This one was pieced together from four wrecks in northwest Russia,” he says. As he gestures at its meticulously restored fuselage, a turquoise-and-silver ring the size of his knuckle gleams from his right hand. It belonged to his father. He rarely takes it off.
Allen has been slowly building his 31-piece collection since the 1990s. In 2004, he opened it up for public viewing and four years later moved it to Paine Field in the tech-rich Seattle suburb of Everett, Washington. This spring he opened a second hangar, adding 19 new machines. Each is in full working order, the result of reconstruction efforts that can cost millions per plane and take years to complete. His aim, he says, is to make these artifacts come to life.