Category Archives: American History

Exploring the role of women in the War effort

By Danielle Prostrollo

Women played an important part of World War II. It is easy to get behind this idea, but it was difficult for me to get a clear image of what that effort really looked like. Everyone knows how important women were as nurses throughout the War effort, but there were many more who worked outside the hospitals, such as the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). This group was formed through the 1943 merger of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and trained over 1,000 women.

These civilian women freed male pilots to be ready for combat. The WASPs were trained pilots who were utilised in all manner of non-combat flying. Without these women, combat pilots would not have had aircraft to fly. Women flew eighty percent of all ferrying missions, delivering over 12,000 aircraft in just over two years. They estimate it that this freed up over 900 male pilots for combat missions. When a ferrying mission came in, the WASPs would go to the factory, take the plane on a test mission, and then deliver it to the air base. They flew almost every type of aircraft used by the USAAF, including the notable B-29 Super Fortress.

In 1943, the WASPs also assisted in combat training, towing shooting targets at Camp Davis. This proved to be a dangerous task. On more than one occasion, the women were shot down because the men mistakenly thought they should shoot the airplane rather than the target they were towing. Eleven WASPs lost their lives during training programs across the US, including Mabel Virginia Rawlinson. Rawlinson had been flying with an instructor when her plane malfunctioned and ultimately crashed. The instructor was thrown from the aircraft, but she was stuck inside the pilot’s seat. It was later discovered that her plane, among others used for towing shooting practice, had not been adequately maintained and the Army Air Corps had been using the wrong octane fuel in them.

As civilians, the WASPs were not considered part of the military and therefore did not receive military benefits. Besides not being considered veterans, this had very real financial implications for those who served as WASPs. Each woman had to pay for their own uniform as well as room and board. Additionally, from the group’s inception in 1943 until it was dissolved in late 1944, 38 WASPs lost their lives (and one disappeared). The bodies of these women were shipped home and buried at the expense of their families rather than receiving a military funeral.

It wasn’t until 1977 that they were retroactively granted veteran’s benefits which allowed them to partake in the programs administered by the Veterans Association. In 2009, WASP received the Congressional Gold Medal, which is on display at Boeing in Chantilly, Virginia. These were just some of the women of World War II who answered the call to protect their country, but knowing about their efforts has helped me to paint a better picture of what role women played at that time.

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The National WWII Museum: How to Bring History into the Present

Emma Goodyear, 2018/19 Chuck Walker scholarship recipient 

NWWIIMuseum

When I was travelling around the United States this summer, I saw so many museums and galleries in so many different cities that I think I could become an attractions review page. However, as the exhibits and portraits and artefacts of many of these locations blur into one in my mind, there is one museum that left a lasting impression. The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana struck a chord, not just for its standards as a clean, accessible and sufficiently time-consuming attraction, but for its ability to push boundaries in the way its visitors study and remember history.

The museum opened its doors in 2000 as a D-Day memorial museum and was designated by the U.S. Congress as the ‘official’ National WWII Museum in 2003. Situated in the Warehouse District, it’s a quick (albeit often crowded) streetcar ride from the French Quarter. At $28.50 per person ($24.50 seniors; $18 students/military) it isn’t the cheapest attraction, but then again you can easily lose a whole day here if you’re looking to do so, especially if you add on the bonus movie and submarine experience for $7 each [exhibits may be subject to change]. As an attraction, the National WWII Museum is very sleek and spacious. The campus is very new and has clearly been designed with a plan or storyline in mind – each of its exhibits seem to be self-contained within large rooms or entire storeys spread out across five buildings on the site (with further expansion planned for the next two years). This design makes learning and placing information easier, having already grouped it into organised subcategories. One thing the museum lacks that would be beneficial here is a comprehensive tour trail or direction. With some of its interactive tables spread out across the rooms labelled with numbers, it creates the impression that there is a set order in which to view the museum. However, the first table I approached ended up being a table number 2, making my party confused and causing us to backtrack to figure out where we were supposed to go, before concluding that it didn’t seem to matter too much, and powering ahead out of order. The museum was reasonably accessible: it is worth bearing in mind that it is a reasonable sized campus of buildings, and you have to walk between buildings to get to all the exhibitions. There are very large and clean lifts, and the interactive screens are low enough to be visible from a standard wheelchair, its videos subtitled and equipped with individual audio listening devices. There are benches to rest on outside of exhibition rooms, although once in the rooms, there seemed to be the typical fast-paced rigmarole you would expect in such an attraction.

In its physical design, the museum matches what you would expect of such a new and spacious facility, but it is in its handling of history that the National WWII Museum stands out. The museum leads not with displays of facts and timelines but with personal oral histories, jumping in on the rising trend of interactive displays and audio tours to help create a more immersive experience. Every guest begins their experience ushered -as the guide points out the soldiers would have been- into a train carriage, where they are given a dog tag that is digitally linked to the profile of a real WWII soldier. This tag allows you to ‘tap in’ at certain points of the museum, checking in on your person’s story as you progress (another reason that the museum would benefit from a specific tour line to ensure you don’t miss stages of your person’s life story as I did). The focus here on personal histories humanises those involved in the war, creating an emotional investment that forces the guest to empathise and visualise the conflict in a way that artefacts in a display case do not tend to do. This is an interactive idea I have seen at use in a select number of museums -the equally poignant Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles springs to mind- but what really set this feature apart here was the ability to save the story, along with many of the artefacts and articles you can find on interactive screens throughout the museum, to send to your email address or retrieve off the website with your dog tag number at a later date. Given the pressure when in a crowded museum to skim information and move on swiftly, the National WWII Museum deliberately ensures that its knowledge, which could otherwise be fast forgotten, is accessible long after the fact for you to take in and truly learn at your own speed. In this, the museum recognises the importance of leaving a lasting impact on its visitors, rather than just being a way to keep people busy for an afternoon to the song of twenty-something bucks each.

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While the top-notch facilities and the personal oral histories played a huge role in creating an enthralling and enjoyable experience, the museum really shone in its thoroughness and educational scope. With exhibitions spread across five different (and large) buildings on the site, the National WWII Museum has the space to create an in-depth study of the war, and it utilises it very well. It should be obvious that studying or travelling abroad opens your eyes to different perspectives, even on issues you thought you were educated and resolved on, but it was at the museum in New Orleans where I first came across a perspective in America that was less American-centric and more deliberately global. It is true that even though I had a solid schooling about the Second World War, British education (including educational media such as documentaries) tends to skew Euro-centric: the major (and in some instances sole) focus is on the conflict in Europe between the Nazis and the Allied forces, often ignoring conflict across North Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Meanwhile in classes and textbooks I encountered while studying in America, the increased focus on the conflict across the Pacific is offset by the insistence that the war may as well have started worldwide in 1942, as there is little attention paid to the conflict in Europe prior to American involvement. There are ample fantastic examples of museums and media where dedication has been shown to the in-depth retelling and preservation of either the European or the Pacific story of the war. The National WWII museum is especially powerful in that it dedicates a great deal of attention to showing the whole image, without having to compromise because of it. In having two equally large exhibits contained within its Campaigns of Courage building, one dedicated to the conflict in Europe and one to the conflict across Asia and the Pacific, the museum refuses to prioritise or taint the history of one element with the lens of the other. Each exhibit has its own distinct architectural and decorative style, with the European Theater dark, snowy and rubble-covered and the Pacific Theater designed like war ships and jungles. The oral histories and digital artefacts spanned both rooms, and both had similar introductory maps, displays and videos. The rooms avoid centering heavily around the expected talking points for each region -namely the Holocaust and the atomic bombing in Japan- in order to focus on stories frequently glossed over by other WWII media and facilities. Each theatre can function individually as an excellent standalone exhibition on its chosen region, but it is in the thoroughness of the story when piecing the two together that the museum shines in a way many more specialised or biased facilities fail to do, utilising its vast amount of space and facilities to ensure all major elements of the WWII story are represented in equal measure.

theatre front

This thoroughness carried over in the attention to detail shown in many of the exhibitions the museum had to offer. The oral histories and digitised biographies told the experiences not just of army soldiers but of nurses and medics, air force, marines and naval officers of many walks of life. In terms of artefacts, there was a display dedicated to weaponry and uniform of both the American and German fighters in the main Memorial Pavilion, and if jets or tanks are your thing, the Freedom Pavilion hosts a collection alongside its $7 submarine experience. The star of the show for me was the vast exhibit showcasing American life during the war. Whilst the exhibit was equipped with the obligatory quaint household set filled with examples of rationed food and old radio sets that you would expect to depict American life in the 40s, it also went much deeper into the intricacies and hypocrisies of the period. The museum addressed racial inequality more than I had expected of it with segments on racially segregated corps and a corner dedicated to experiences of Japanese internment. Ideally, I would have loved this part to be larger and more in-depth, but that’s from to personal interest in the subject; the content that was available was a sufficient basic overview. There were still a couple of times that bias or lack of willingness to take culpability was revealed, often in relation to America’s relationship with Japan: while anti-Japanese propaganda during the period and afterwards was particularly virulent from posters to Bugs Bunny cartoons, the museum makes reference to such propaganda only once in a tiny plaque in the Pacific exhibition, when it would have helped create a cultural backdrop to the Japanese internment section in the lifestyle exhibition. Similarly, the room at the very end of the Pacific exhibition on the dropping of the atomic bombs was particularly bare in comparison, perhaps in a way that was meant to seem respectful but in reality seemed under-informed: with no real reference to Japanese civilians or its impact on Japan but instead with recollection to the wind conditions faced by the pilots, the room felt like it missed the mark, especially when the rest of the museum was so thoroughly organised. In this aspect, the rest of the museum sets such a high bar for itself that it is perhaps more noticeable when some small areas miss the mark.

            Overall, the National WWII Museum took the crown of the best museum I visited on my travels, mostly due to a prevailing feeling that those behind it cared about more than just creating a profitable and mildly entertaining attraction. While the museum is a success in those elements, it truly shines in its dedication to ensuring that a vast range of war stories are not forgotten, creating a platform for individual voices through its interactive oral histories that better equip its visitors to empathise and understand the war behind the facts and figures. And in ensuring with its digital dog tag experience that guests can take the stories home with them, the National WWII Museum cares about preserving the history it showcases within its walls, long after you have stepped out of the door.

Article first posted on https://www.agoodyearinthelife.com

 

https://www.nationalww2museum.org/

Open daily, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Closed Mardi Gras Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.

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Normandy’s Legacy

I was fortunate enough last week to visit the D-Day landing sites of Utah and Omaha beaches. Growing up reading about, hearing about, and seeing movies which portray the landings which occurred did not prepare me for the vast weight of history you can feel on a metaphorical pilgrimage to these places. Looking out across the immense, flat beach (far longer from low-tide to the seawall than I ever imagined) it is hard to imagine the courage and tenacity of the brave men who fought and died there that day and throughout the rest of Normandy during the campaign.

Walking up the bluffs and through the ruins of the German positions, seeing their vantage and the scars left from the shelling by naval forces, it is hard to picture how any soldier left the beach alive on either side. In one case I saw a piece of reinforced concrete roughly the size of an SUV which had been launched several hundred feet out onto the beach from where it had begun. Likewise, the 12 foot deep craters which still, almost 75 years later, pock the ground of Pointe du Hoc give silent testament to the unbelievable destructive forces which played across the Normandy region.

However, the most important sites visited, to my mind, were the cemeteries created for the servicemen who died on D-Day and through the remainder of the Normandy campaign. Most of these young men would never leave Normandy, even after death, though a small few were sent home for funeral rites. Most striking though, even over the weight of the tens of thousands of dead, was the stark difference between that cemetery dedicated and filled with young American soldiers and that occupied by the German soldiers.

The American cemetery is done in white marble, with a sweeping vista and beautiful statuary which calls to the heroism of those interred there. Broad arches and manicured greens pay honor to the soldiers there and enhance their sacrifices through memorials and services meant to bring remembrance and awe to visitors. It truly is one of the most beautiful and touching sites in Normandy.

What surprised me, however, is the solemnity and quiet despair which lies over the graveyard for the young German soldiers who gave their lives during the campaign. In this cemetery over 20,000 German soldiers are interred, most two to a grave, and with a mass grave situated in a mound at the center. Where the American cemetery is done in shining white marble and set on the bluffs overlooking Normandy in witness to their deeds, the German cemetery is done in rough granite and sits next to a highway. Where the American cemetery is full of visitors, veterans, and school trips, the German cemetery was empty but for my family. And, where the white marble statues and arches call to the nobility in the American cemetery, the rough stone statues which occupy the center of the German graveyard call simply to the sorrow of mothers and fathers whose sons would never return home.

Both cemeteries are full of young men who, with varying levels of willingness, were doing their duty as best they could. Looking at the differences it is easy to say the truth in history being written by the victors, but also it is easy to note in the ages and stories of those who are buried the thought shared by many soldiers that under different circumstances these men could have been friends rather than mortal foes. I feel it is important to remember all who fought and died, whose sacrifices are memorialized in Normandy, as regardless of their nationality they did their duty and made the ultimate sacrifice for it.

 

Thank you for reading and remembering with me.

 

-Mike

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An American Peculiarity

A subject which often arises when I chat with friends here in the UK is how curious it is that most Americans know not just their ethnic background, but are able to quantify it readily. This seems to be a byproduct of the waves of immigration which had different groups arriving in the US at different times meaning that groups tended to be segregated at first, think of the famous stereotypes of the signs “Irish need not apply” for example. This reluctance of the older immigrant groups to welcome new ones seems to have created points in time where families would look back at when they themselves first came to the American continent.

Since new waves of immigrants continued to come from around the world, and still do, this retrospection of one’s family’s or one’s own origins kept being reinforced. A further factor which emphasizes the ratio of an American’s ethnic makeup is that new immigrants often settled in like communities. For example, in my home state of North Dakota the groups which immigrated are largely Swedish, Norwegian, and German. These groups ended up settled in towns largely equidistant along the train line with immigrants from Germany getting off on one stop, those from Norway getting off at the next, and Swedes getting off at the next. This created very tight-knit communities which, until the age of large-scale agriculture and the interstate system remained largely closed.

It was often quite the scandal if a woman from one town married a man from another, such as happened with my great-grandparents who were Swedish and Norwegian respectively. This further emphasized where origins were from creating a third pressure to remember.

But, there can be practical reasoning behind this sectioning off of one’s person as well. In this I mean that there are some groups of individuals where membership offers either monetary or societal rewards such as with certain Native American tribes. While it would be a grave mistake to simplify the greater impact of membership to these groups it can be beneficial in certain specific areas, especially where there are casinos which offer a redistribution of wealth throughout the community. In these cases, to try and prevent abuse of these income sources inclusion in the tribe is sometimes strictly limited to members who can prove a certain percentage of heritage within that group.

All of these various forces result in the ability of many Americans to calculate exactly where their ancestors came from, and in some cases the precise time of their arrival as well. This boils down to the peculiar ability to site ones own ethnic heritage very precisely, in my case 50% German, 25% Norwegian, and 25% Swedish. A fact that to me is just basic knowledge but to many of my British and European friends is often surprising and puzzling.

Thanks for reading and I hope you found this as curious and interesting as I have come to.

-Mike

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