Memories of World War II

SPRINGFIELD – The voices of the World War II generation will take visitors from Pearl Harbor to the beaches of Normandy and from Nazi death camps to a Japanese prison in a stunning new exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

“In This Great Struggle: The Greatest Generation Remembers World War II” opens June 6, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. It is generously supported by AT&T.

The heart of the exhibit is a series of interviews with the men and women who served and fought in World War II. These interviews have been woven into a series of short videos about the war, from the home front to the front lines.

The videos are accompanied by fascinating artifacts from the war: Gen. Eisenhower’s helmet, a motorcycle, a doll carried by a young girl in a Japanese prison camp, and much more.

The exhibit also includes World War II propaganda posters from the presidential library’s collection. The colorful posters urge people to buy war bonds, avoid unnecessary travel and, most important of all, keep quiet about military secrets.

“Creating this exhibit has been an honor,” said Alan Lowe, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. “For the first time, we’ve brought together World War II material from different parts of the library’s collection, borrowed wonderful items from other institutions and put it all together in a package that I’m sure people will love.”

Visitors will enter “In This Great Struggle” through a replica of a D-Day landing craft. Inside, they’ll find videos documenting World War II through the stories of the Illinoisans who endured it.

The people featured in the videos include Charles Sehe, a sailor on the U.S.S. Nevada when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; Arthur Betts, one of the few African-Americans to fight in a largely white unit, and Harold Steele, among the first Americans to encounter a Nazi death camp. Betty Wrigley describes what it was like to be a real-life “Rosie the Riveter” making military vehicles. Mary Ann Koucky explains life as a child in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines.

Most of the interviews were conducted by the presidential library’s Oral History Program. “I’m excited that this exhibit will include the voices of 23 Americans from the Greatest Generation who we’ve interviewed over the years. They were average people who were thrust into the midst of war, and who lived extraordinary lives,” said the program’s director, Dr. Mark DePue.

The exhibit includes many smaller items that tell individual stories of the war. Those stories can be joyful, tragic and inspiring – sometimes all at once.

There are telegrams to a mother. One says her son has been taken prisoner, and another brings the joyous news that he has been released. There’s also a set of French work papers – forgeries given to a downed American pilot by the French Resistance. Another letter seems unremarkable, until you realize it was a soldier’s last letter home.

Veterans and military personnel always get a $5 discount to the presidential museum. That discount is being expanded during the run of “In This Great Struggle.” Spouses of active-duty troops will also get $5 off, and veterans, military personnel and spouses with military ID can bring up to three family members at $5 off the standard adult ticket price or $1 off the youth price.  

A series of special events will accompany the World War II exhibit.

  • D-Day: Dr. Mark DePue analyzes the day that the largest armada in history brought 152,000 Allied troops to the hostile shores of Normandy. May 30, 6:30 p.m., Union Theater, free.
  • A ceremony on the morning of June 6 to raise U.S. and French flags that recently flew at the Utah Beach landing site in Normandy.
  • Curators of ‘In This Great Struggle’: Hear from the team that created this one-of-a-kind exhibit. June 12, 5:30 p.m., library, free.
  • Superheroes Boot Camp: In partnership with the Illinois State Military Museum, this event offers climbing and racing activities, map reading and a bounce-house obstacle course. Everyone is welcome to wear their favorite superhero costume. June 15, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Union Square Park, free. 
  • Movies of World War II: Dr. Mark DePue presents highlights from some of the greatest World War II movies and compares their depictions of war with what really happened. Sept. 26, 6:30 p.m., Union Theater, free.
  • Rosie the Riveter: Through games and activities, children learn about Rosie the Riveter, the icon of women in the workplace during World War II. Oct. 26, 10 a.m.-noon, museum plaza, free with regular admission.

The Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum uses a combination of rigorous scholarship and high-tech showmanship to immerse visitors in the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.  Visitors can see ghosts come to life on stage, watch TV coverage of the 1860 presidential election, roam through the Lincoln White House, experience booming cannons in a Civil War battle and come face to face with priceless original Lincoln artifacts.

The library holds an unparalleled collection of Lincoln books, documents, photographs, artifacts and art, as well as some 12 million items pertaining to all aspects of Illinois history. 

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