On Dec. 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan, and lives began to turn upside down. As World War II raged, ordinary citizens coped with extraordinary circumstances for four agonizing years. In North Carolina, thousands of men and women entered the military, while citizens at home played essential roles to further the cause. Every corner of the state felt the effects of war as America’s “greatest generation” helped lead the Allied forces to final victory on Sept. 2, 1945.
On Tuesday, Sept. 18, the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh will open an exhibit that recounts the experiences of North Carolinians who lived, served and sacrificed during World War II. Everybody’s War: North Carolina and World War II brings these stories to life by showcasing military and home front items, government posters, newsreel clips, personal belongings, photographs and other artifacts. The exhibit opening coincides with the debut of the PBS epic World War II documentary series “The War,” produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and premiering on UNC-TV on Sept. 23. The exhibit will run through Feb. 17, 2008.
Everybody’s War highlights the diverse roles Tar Heels played both in battle and on the home front. The exhibit’s artifacts serve as vivid reminders of the pivotal period in our state’s history. The objects range from a Ford jeep and a “Victory” training rifle to ration tokens and a re-created home front living room with a “Welcome Home” banner and a radio playing music of the day. German and Japanese souvenirs that Americans brought home include a Nazi army officer’s sword, a German helmet, a Japanese flag and machine gun, and a tile fragment from Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat near Berchtesgaden in Austria.
Photographs in Everybody’s War reveal the true picture of life during wartime for many Tar Heels. Images of servicemen and women include Marine Frederick C. Branch of Charlotte, the first African American commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps; Women Airforce Service Pilots member Katherine Lee Harris Adams of Durham; and First Lieutenant William B. Watts Jr. of Williamston with fellow marines on Guadalcanal in 1943. Other photographs depict women applying rivets to aircraft at Cherry Point Air Station, Red Cross workers, young Junior Commandos collecting scrap metal, and African American nurses in training at Saint Agnes Hospital on the campus of St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh. (The hospital closed in 1961.)
During World War II, North Carolina became a center for military training. New military bases sprang up practically overnight and old ones expanded. Fort Bragg went from training 5,400 men in 1940 to 100,000 by the end of the war — becoming the largest artillery post in the world. By 1943 the Tar Heel State was training more troops than any other state.
Everybody’s War features numerous photographs of these training sites and the men who trained there. For example, visitors will see images of Camp Davis, near Holly Ridge, which became the army’s main anti-aircraft artillery training base, and pictures of the first tents set up before barracks were built for marines at Camp Lejeune, near Jacksonville.
Exhibit visitors will discover computer stations, such as one featuring an interactive scrapbook documenting the experiences of Robert Neal Garrison of Salisbury, who served in the U.S. Navy in Africa, France and Sicily. Movie, newsreel and cartoon clips from the era will be on view as well.
World War II ultimately claimed the lives of 4,088 North Carolinians who were killed in action. Visitors to Everybody’s War will gain a deeper understanding of the many challenges Tar Heels faced during the four years that eventually led to a victorious end on VJ day on Sept. 2, 1945.
The exhibit is sponsored by UNC-TV and presented as part of “History Happens Here,” a yearlong celebration of North Carolina history, initiated by the Department of Cultural Resources. For more information about the N.C. Museum of History, call 919-807-7900 or go to ncmuseumofhistory.org