Category Archives: American History

Riding the Rails in America

Summer! It’s warm out, with the smell of vegetation in the air, and after a year plus of lockdown, people are eager to wander again. But with international travel restrictions still in place, many are finding that local journeys are the way to go. In the United States, with its far-flung highway system, I envision lots of planned road trips, with visits to heritage sites and the beautiful and varied national parks. While I like a good road trip as much as the next person, long days of driving and traffic can turn into a chore, especially if your car breaks down. Such stops can be serendipitous—once, on a drive from the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York to Florida, I spent a lovely couple of unscheduled days in Savannah, Georgia, while waiting on a part for my old, not-so-trusty Isuzu Trooper. But I’ve always thought that for seeing the vast sweep and range of the American landscape, you can’t beat a cross-country rail trip.

While the comprehensive rail network that once crisscrossed the country has largely given way to highways, there are still long haul, regional and freight railroads in use. For summer travel, what I have in mind are the heritage versions of the classic passenger train journeys widely taken before commercial air travel became the default. Even the names evoke a romantic era of train travel: the Lakeshore Limited from New York to Chicago, the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Riding from the East Coast to the West, you can experience the Great Lakes, the midwestern plains with their sweeping vistas, the Mississippi River that winds through eight states, stunning mountain ranges like the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas and the canyons and deserts of the American west.

But riding the rails isn’t only about nostalgia and dramatic scenery. You’re also taking a ride into American history. The transcontinental railroad was first conceived in 1845 and received federal backing in a bill signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It was designed as a kind of corporate competition for land grants and dollars, with one railroad starting the tracks eastward from Sacramento, California, and the other built westward from the Missouri River, racing to meet in the middle. The railroad’s completion was commemorated by a 17.6-karat golden spike linking the Central Pacific and Union Pacific tracks, driven into the ground on May 10, 1869. 

While the railroad brought benefits to businesses, communities and travellers alike, it wasn’t built without sacrifice. The work was backbreaking and dangerous for workers, including enslaved and free black people, as well as immigrant Chinese laborers, toiling in brutal conditions for little or no pay. Native Americans opposed (sometimes violently) its passage through tribal land.

The railroad was also a site of civil rights and labor history. Black men traditionally worked as Pullman porters, attending to train passengers on sleeper cars from boarding to detrainment. The jobs provided a stable source of employment, but the wages were low, the conditions discriminatory and the hours long. The porters endured racism from riders and exploitation by managers. In 1925, they famously banded together to form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph and Milton P. Webster, to organise for better working conditions, finally achieving union recognition in 1935 and a contract two years later.

The rails were also a lifestyle for itinerant workers, called hobos, during periods of widespread unemployment, such as the Great Depression, and later, a footloose escape from the harsh realities of the wage grind. The slang term ‘hobo’ first came into use in American English circa 1890. 

Women are often omitted from accounts of railroad history, although they also worked and travelled on trains, even hopping the freights, facing discrimination, the threat of violence and exploitation along the way.

The rail network was conscripted into service by the US military during both world wars, used to transport troops, goods and equipment from coast to coast.

It’s easy to see why the riding the rails inspired singers from Arlo Guthrie to Johnny Cash: 

Feel the wheels rumblin’ ‘neath the floor

And the sons of Pullman porters

And the sons of engineers

Ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel

Mothers with their babes asleep

Are rockin’ to the gentle beat

And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

(from City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman) 

— post by Suzanne Solomon

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Pride Month at the American Library: ‘Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II’ by Allan Bérubé

The American military has come a long way since the days of dishonorable discharges of gay service members and the discriminatory policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. In early June, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke at an event celebrating Pride Month at the Pentagon. Secretary Austin praised those LGBTQ+ service members who ‘fought for our country even when our country wouldn’t fight for them. Even as some were forced to hide who they were… or to hang up their uniforms.’ 

In the 1940s, as recruitment and conscription for the war reached record numbers, homosexuality was regarded by the US military as a mental illness, disqualifying gay men and women for service. Prior to and during the war, the commission of ‘homosexual acts’ was considered a crime for which service members could be court-martialed. In the 1980s, the Department of Defense instituted an enlistment ban, which was modified by 1994’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, in which ‘service members would not be asked about their sexual orientation, but would be discharged for disclosing it’, according to a Department of Defense-affiliated website for members of the military.

Coming Out Under Fire: the History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, author Alan Bérubé’s account of the gay troops of the ‘Greatest Generation’, was first published in 1990. Bérubé, a community historian, began collecting the accounts that would lead to his book in the 1970s, and the book became an invaluable resource for activists and lawmakers alike. A 20th anniversary edition was published in 2010, still highly relevant to the debates taking place around military exclusion policies.

Coming Out Under Fire is far from a grim account of unrelenting prejudice. Through extensive research in government records, archives, personal collections and interviews, Bérubé looks at the US military’s efforts to screen out, discharge, manage and, finally, recognize and appreciate the contributions of its gay service members. He also relates his interviewees’ moving personal stories of discovery, conflict, loss and love. Many of Bérubé’s subjects found supporters and allies in the brotherhood and sisterhood of the armed forces during the war. In addition to the barriers and challenges they faced, which for some included the double bar of racial discrimination, Bérubé recounts their experiences of the conflict’s toll, along with the victory celebrations and the simple but significant act of survival. 

Years of activism by gay service members, along with their allies, from challenging and reforming the US military’s discriminatory and punitive policies to the courageous and proud statement of refusing to deny their sexual identity while under fire, finally led to the repeal of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ in 2011, allowing openly gay men and women to serve; the extension of spousal and family benefits to gay and bisexual service members in 2013; and the 2021 removal of the ban on transgender troops. However, as Secretary Austin said in his speech, there is still more progress to be made, including addressing sexual assault and harassment in the force and creating ‘a safe and supportive workplace for everyone–free from discrimination, harassment, and fear.’ 

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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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.

WWIIVets

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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