MVM show honors Island WWII vets
Museums tend to be repositories for artifacts of the past - holding physical mementos of people long gone and events all but forgotten. But the multi-sensory exhibit at the Martha's Vineyard Museum, "Those Who Serve - Martha's Vineyard and World War II," will present more of a living history, adding the personal touch of audio interviews featuring individual stories of local heroes who served both on the front and behind the scenes in the written and spoken words of Islanders, along with letters and personal mementos. The full narratives of the interviews will also be available in small booklets. This is the first time that the museum has combined audio and three-dimensional exhibits in an installation.
Linsey Lee, the museum's oral history curator, is responsible for pulling together the interviews included in the exhibit. She says. "It's the personal aspect of war - the valor and the horror, the exhilaration of battles won and the shared anxiety and sacrifice of people here at the home front told in a way that's accessible to everyone, not just WWII or history buffs."
Ms. Lee has been compiling oral histories on the Vineyard for more than 30 years. She became inspired during research she was doing for a book when she first moved here. She says, "The people I'd meet and these personal quixotic stories helped me understand the Vineyard better."
Since then Ms. Lee has made it her mission to preserve the history of the Island through recorded oral histories. "To me there is no such thing as concrete history," she says. "It's the contradictions. You talk to different people, you get an infinite variety. Memory is a very the richness of history. You get all the facets of the diamond."
Those facets are very much in evidence in the selection of living witnesses to the war years. The exhibit includes the stories of six men and four women who viewed the era from a multitude of different perspectives.
The center exhibit is dedicated to the Athearn family of West Tisbury. All three of the Athearn boys served in the war, Leonard in India, Elmer in the Pacific, and Clifton in Europe. Souvenirs of their travels - a hula skirt, Indian money - make up part of the display along with dozens of their letters home. The letters sum up the emotions of wartime and address the men's feelings about the war. Also included in the exhibit is a painting of the Battle of Britain by Vineyard maritime artist Chandler Moore. The remarkably detailed painting, which hung in the Lampost for many years, will be on public display for the first time in 30 years.
"This isn't an exhibit on the history of the war," says assistant curator Anna Carringer. "It's the memories and the stories of people who were affected by it. The relevancy of these stories to the Island are important. There are so many people on the Island that have varied experiences. We wanted to pull it together and put a perspective on it. This was the perfect subject for the kind of exhibit we wanted to do."
The stories run the gamut from serving in the European and Pacific theaters to taking a part on the home front. John Mayhew describes his harrowing missions as a pilot in the Pacific and his encounters with kamikaze pilots. Ted Morgan talks about parachuting behind enemy lines in Normandy and serving as a medic in six battle campaigns. Tom Hale witnessed the liberation of the Bergen-Belson concentration camp. James McLaurin faced challenges inside the military, as well as in battle, as a member of the famed all-black Tuskegee Airmen.
Others aided the war effort at home. Ann Lesnikowski was with the WASPs and talks about transporting aircraft. Barbara Townes worked as a welder at the Boston Navy Yard. Hector Asselin helped run the Naval Air Station here on the Vineyard. Betty Honey worked as an air raid warden in Vineyard Haven and as a cleric at Camp Edwards.
The range of emotions come across in the audio interviews. Some, such as John Mayhew's, are vividly recalled, detailed descriptions of the horrors of battle. Other participants, like Betty Honey, describe the deprivations of wartime. With characteristic good humor, she relates a number of stories about coping with shortages and rationing. Tom Hale sings two versions of "Lili Marlene." First he performs the song in its original German, then, with his voice catching at times, he sings a sad English rendition that was popular among the troops at the time.
The small gallery is also full of affecting photos and artifacts. Uniforms and metals are on display, as well an anti-blackout flight suit. There are both allied and German insignia patches. One case holds Ms. Lesnikowski's wonderful souvenirs of her time with the WASPs, including her wings set into a sterling silver cuff bracelet. There are ration stamps, v-mail letters, and mementos from foreign lands.
Eventually a video will be added featuring an interview with Edgartown residents Maurice and Nettie Vanderpol. Mr. Vanderpol spent the war years in hiding in Holland while she suffered interment in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
Despite the many differences in the people honored and the tales told, Ms. Carringer points out the common thread. She says, "What ties them all together is their absolute willingness and generosity. They dropped everything to serve without asking a question. It's such an amazing switch to how people feel about the armed services today."
"Those Who Serve - Martha's Vineyard and World War II," opens on Friday, Nov. 27, at the Martha's Vineyard Museum, and will run through next August. On Saturday, Nov. 28, at 3 pm, there is a program at the Federated Church featuring Ted Morgan, Betty Honey, Hector Asselin, and Meverell Good. A reception follows at the museum at 59 School Street in Edgartown.
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Times.