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Experiencing War, an Online Exhibit: End of WWII

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“Home Alive in ’45!” As World War II veteran Merle Korte explains, so went the popular mantra–though he and his shipmates aboard the USS Ritilicus, serving in the Pacific Ocean and awaiting the imminent invasion of Japan, could scarcely believe it was possible. Along with the rest of the world, they had lived with war for so many years that peace seemed unimaginable. Finally, though, the hopeful words came true–though in Korte’s case, with only a few days to spare: he arrived home on December 25, 1945.

ID card and black and white headshot of man in uniform.  ID card says 27 in large red font.
ID card belonging to Frank Morrison II, a JAG officer who helped to prosecute Japanese guards accused of mistreating Allied prisoners of war. Frank Morrison II Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/93130.

World War II was arguably the most cataclysmic event that the modern world has ever seen. Exploring the end of the war inevitably means discussing its larger meaning, which seems an overwhelming task in light of the scope of the conflict. This is how I felt in pulling together the most recent installment of the Veteran History Project‘s (VHP) Experiencing War web feature, which focuses on the end of World War II. As is so often the case in my work with VHP collections, I found my entre point through the personal stories that comprise our archive. These stories not only humanize the historical narrative of the war itself, but also illustrate what came after, as the impact of the war continued long past the official surrenders and victory parades.

The collections in this exhibit were chosen with an eye toward exploring the tremendous and overwhelming changes–social, cultural, political, and most importantly, personal–that resulted from World War II. Following a time of the violent destruction of countries, families, and individuals, the end of the war ushered in an era of slow recovery. A number of veterans, such as Private First Class Louis Zoghby, and Steward Third Class Charles Warford, took part in the occupations of Germany and Japan, where they observed the physical devastation wrought by the war as well as its impact on civilians. Some of these veterans actively confronted and grappled with the war’s atrocities: Captain Frank Morrison II helped to prosecute Japanese prison guards for crimes against Allied prisoners of war, while Captain Robert Tweed observed the liberation of German concentration camps.

Black and white image of woman standing outside aircraft with her hand on a window/door.
Photograph of WASP Violet Cowden with her plane. Violet Clara Thurn Cowden Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/18240.

Just as the world was completely transformed by the war, so too were individual lives, and the collections in the exhibit demonstrate the high price that many American servicemen and women paid for peace. First Lieutenant Evelyn Kowalchuk, a flight nurse who cared for patients evacuated from the Normandy beaches, describes the high incidence of suicide within her unit after the war, haunted as she and her fellow flight nurses were by what they had seen. While many veterans sustained injuries requiring long stints of rehabilitation, this was especially the case for former prisoners of war, such as Staff Sergeant Lester Tenney and Captain Robert Granston. All of the featured veterans would likely agree with Charles Warford, who says in his oral history interview, “War is hell, and I’ve seen my share.”

All of the collections in the exhibit contain those personal details, large and small, that epitomize the Veterans History Project. Read through the feature to find out more about Marine Corporal Melford Jarstad: surrounded by palm trees on a remote Pacific atoll, he was so homesick that he asked his girlfriend to send a sprig from a fir tree, so that he could inhale the scent of the mountains. Listen to Violet Cowden, a member of the Women Air Service Pilots, describe how it felt to fly (and then to be shunted out of service when male pilots began to return from overseas). And after you’ve explored these collections and the others, consider interviewing a World War II veteran and donating their story to the Veterans History Project. Don’t forget to ask them about the end of the war!

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