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Collection Snapshot: Merle Korte and the End of WWII

Merle Korte (far left) with unnamed service buddies. Merle Korte Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/47044.

This month sees a round of 70th anniversaries relating to the end of World War II–the release of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, and Japan’s announcement of surrender on August 15th. The Veterans History Project‘s (VHP) official commemoration will come next month, with the September 8th release of an “Experiencing War” web feature focusing solely on the end of the war. To whet your appetite for it, I wanted to give you a taste of one of the collections that I’ve been exploring and that will be included in the web feature.

A farm boy from the tiny town of Woden, Iowa, Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Merle Korte enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He hoped to become a naval aviation cadet, but his mother’s fear of plane crashes prevented him from pursuing that option. Instead, he was assigned to the USS Rutilicus, a cargo and supplies ship that hauled landing crafts and provided support for island invasions in the Pacific Theater. Serving aboard the Rutilicus, he witnessed many of the most memorable events of the war, such as McArthur’s return to the Philippines and the Battle of Tarawa. In his oral history interview, Korte recalls receiving the news about the Japanese surrender, and the ensuing celebration that occurred aboard ship: while liquor was officially prohibited, it seemed like every man on the Rutilicus was able to find a bottle of whiskey with which to toast the end of the war.

Korte Heroes

Photograph captioned, “All Hail the Conquering Heroes,” taken in Nagasaki, Japan, 9/1945. Merle Korte Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/00/47044.

Korte goes on to discuss his experiences briefly serving in Japan after the end of the war. His extensive photo collection also documents much of what he saw, including American prisoners of war who had been captured on Wake Island, and the effects of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. One photo in particular, depicting a crew of smiling American sailors piled on a truck, captures the dissonant nature of this time period. The photo is captioned “All Hail the Conquering Heroes,” and although the photo is a bit hazy, the disintegration of Nagasaki is visible in the background. While the end of the war brought jubilation for Allied countries, it could not erase the costs of war, a fact not lost on Korte. Out of his graduating high school class, four out of twelve did not make it home from the war. As he concludes his oral history, “War is a hell of a thing.”

You can watch Korte’s full interview here. A previous “Experiencing War” feature on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II is available here, and don’t miss the new feature when it debuts on September 8th!

PS: Korte’s collection also includes wonderful photos depicting the crossing the line ceremony, previously discussed in this blog post.


  1. Josh Martin
    April 22, 2021 at 1:10 pm

    Hi Megan,

    The unnamed services buddies in this picture are my grandpa Frank Martin (center), and George W. “Hoot” Bailey on the right.

    • Megan Harris
      April 23, 2021 at 3:30 pm

      Hi Mr. Martin, wow! Thanks so much for filling in the missing information, we are thrilled to hear from you. If you have any material (such as original letters or photos) that you would be willing to donate to the Veterans History Project, his collection would make a wonderful complement to Mr. Korte’s. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any interest in this. Thank you once again for reading!

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