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HISTORY: North Dakota's WWII experience

BISMARCK - The message on the old World War II poster was easily understood in its day. The words on the poster: ". . . because somebody talked!" The image, on display in the North Dakota Heritage Center, shows a teary-eyed cocker spaniel resting...

BISMARCK - The message on the old World War II poster was easily understood in its day.

The words on the poster: ". . . because somebody talked!"

The image, on display in the North Dakota Heritage Center, shows a teary-eyed cocker spaniel resting its head on a U.S. Navy sailor's outfit that's draped over the back of an easy chair. In the backdrop hangs a heart-rending symbol of war sacrifice in American households of the day: a Gold Star banner. An individual had died in service to country.

But this death could have been prevented, the Office of War Information poster implies.

The poster's common World War II message gains irony in the Heritage Center exhibit, where it's displayed just a few feet from a video screen that shows North Dakota veterans recounting their war experiences.


For many veterans, it is talk that has been a long time coming.

Giving artifacts life

Military uniforms. Propoganda posters. Photographs. Allied and enemy weapons. Medals. Even military battlefield food known as C-rations. Artifacts of World War II have graced the James Sperry Gallery off the main entrance of the State Historical Society of North Dakota's Heritage Center for nearly two years now.

They gain context primarily through their unique connection to North Dakotans - the nurses, governors, teachers, farmers and store clerks who served everywhere from the front lines to the home front.

And the words and voices of veterans give the artifacts life.

Most vivid are the stories, tapped from the 600 or so audio and video interviews of World War II veterans collected as part of the state's recent Veterans History Project. Examples of these interviews make up an hourlong DVD that forms an exhibit centerpiece and also enhance various text on artifact displays.

The display comments sometimes have particular resonance to North Dakotans, such as a comment from Reuben Forsberg, a seaman first class on the U.S.S. Mississippi in the Pacific Theater, who participated in one of the last battles at the island of Okinawa.

"In Okinawa," Forsberg said, "I kept thinking to myself, 'I'm a land boy, born out on the prairie. . . . I don't care much for being a sitting duck."


A revelation

These recollections were captured in recordings made by schoolchildren, college students and other volunteers, almost all under the Veterans History Project. Moreover, they are the voices of neighbors, friends and relatives, and they have made the exhibit "particularly striking," said Jerry Newborg, SHSND state archivist for 26 years.

"Many of the stories that we've had have probably been fairly familiar stories - the settlers coming west, people living in homesteading cabins, that sort of thing," Newborg said. "When we started talking about and bringing out these stories about World War II, I think it was probably a revelation, particularly for the younger people who were seeing just how much people from North Dakota have been a part of what's going on in a larger world.

"It's the whole idea that what was going on in a larger time and place - World War II - is something that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were involved with."

As World War II veterans continue to age and their health declines, their numbers diminish - and with them, their war stories. But for so many veterans, their war experiences have not been easily shared.

Often, it is because they witnessed events uncomfortable, distressing or horrific - matters they prefer not to share, or to leave behind. Sometimes, they've heeded long-ago orders.

Recurring wartime reminders, such as the dog-and-Gold Star poster, reminded citizen soldiers to not discuss or write about movement of troops or supplies because enemy spies might hear something that could lead to attacks on U.S. forces. "Loose lips sink ships" became an enduring catch phrase.

The exhibit features multiple examples of oversized wall posters, called Newsmaps, prepared by the War Department to inform soldiers and civilians about war progress and sharing the experiences of military men and women. They also helped the government gain some level of control over the scope and tone of information about the war effort.


Important legacy

One Newsmap shows a rifle barrel and bayonet, plus the message, "Let this do your talking."

"Silence means security," reads the text of one display.

"When a man stands ready to fight to his last drop of blood, to his last breath of life, he doesn't do much talking," the Newsmap continues. "He lets his weapon do that for him. And later, he doesn't talk about where he has been or when, or what he did or saw. He knows that the safety of millions depends on his silence."

Servicemen and women took these messages so completely to heart that many continued not to discuss what they learned and witnessed at war - years, even decades after they were discharged.

SHSND officials say the exhibit illustrates that it's no longer silence that is golden.

"When this exhibit first came up, we had a large number of World War II veterans come through. You could tell that with some of them, it would bring back memories," said Mark Halvorson, SHSND curator of collections research. "The good part was they're then sharing them with their family. And that's the important legacy of the North Dakota Veterans History Project."

Newborg recalled how one veteran had asked his daughter to type some of his notes about the war for him. "She came back and said, 'You never told me any of these things. I didn't know of these things before.'"


Halvorson's favorite story is that of a third-grader from the Bismarck area who heard about a school bus driver from Almont, N.D., who had been a driver for Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

"And this kid goes, 'So and so?' 'Yeah.' Turns out he's his great-grandfather. The kid had no idea. . . . He went and listened to his great-grandfather, did a two-page paper, the longest thing he'd ever written.

"Placing North Dakotans and people in history really resonates with kids."

Artifacts home

The World War II exhibit has plenty of items provided from North Dakota veterans themselves. A gas mask and bag carried by a Mohall soldier. The diving goggles and flippers used by a Bismarck veteran of a Navy combat underwater demolitions unit.

One display offers a bomber jacket that belonged to a radio operator from Bismarck who flew B-17 bomber missions, each of them listed on the jacket's back. The list of missions shares space with the slogan "I'll Get By" and the caricature of a pin-up woman wearing a tight T-shirt and shorts and donning boxing gloves.

The military issue swim shorts used in basic training by a Mandan soldier are part of another display. There's a Navy uniform used by Donald G. Harriman, Grand Forks, a petty officer second class who served as a pharmacist's mate.

An Army nurse uniform from the Kenmare native who wore it among a number of unfiroms and other exhibit artifacts that denote the contributions of women in the military during World War II.


"What has been interesting has been watching the effect on high-school-age girls, some of whom are looking at the military or the North Dakota National Guard as being a possible way of maybe going to college because college is getting expensive," Halvorson said. "And they're seeing the displays and understanding, 'Wow, there were women who served in the military in World War II.' They had never thought about it."

Exhibit ends Oct. 28

"North Dakota Remembers World War II" ends Oct. 28. It will give way to a Cold War exhibit, the next in a series that continues to look at the state's involvement in international conflict. The Cold War exhibit debuts Nov. 2, in conjunction with the 19th Annual Governor's Conference on North Dakota History in Bismarck.

In 2009, the Cold War exhibit's two-year run will give way to a Korean War exhibit, which in turn will be replaced by a Vietnam War exhibit in 2011. In all cases, the audio and video collections from the Veterans History Project will help give a North Dakota voice to the conflicts.

It's one reason why the State Historical Society continues to accept oral history contributions from North Dakota's wartime veterans, even though federal funds for the project, which enabled staffing of a full-time project coordinator, have run out.

There are more veterans with stories and more stories to tell, but the time to tell them is dwindling.

Brue is the Herald's projects editor. Reach him at (701) 780-1267; (800) 477-6572, ext. 267; or mbrue@gfherald.com .

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