D-Day Artifacts On Display At Massachusetts World War II Museum

Jun 6, 2014

The announcement of the the invasion of Normandy which signaled the end of World War II, happened 70 years ago today.

A special exhibition about D-Day is on display at the World War II museum in Natick, Mass. It houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of documents and artifacts about the war.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, WBUR’s Andrea Shea takes us on a tour of the museum.



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And now back to our top story. Seventy years ago today, Americans gathered around their radios to hear this.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.

HOBSON: The announcement of the invasion of Normandy by the Allies. Today in Normandy, at events marking that invasion, President Obama said D-Day was a powerful manifestation of America's commitment to human freedom.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Normandy - this was democracy's beachhead. And our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well-being of all prosperity.

HOBSON: President Obama, speaking today at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Nearly 10,000 white marble tombstones sit on a bluff, overlooking the site of the battle. And there are remembrances going on today all over the United States, including a special exhibition about D-Day on display at the World War II museum in Natick, Massachusetts. It houses the world's most comprehensive collection of documents and artifacts about the war. From the HERE AND NOW contributor's network, WBUR's Andrea Shea takes us on a tour.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: From outside, the World War II museum is nondescript, almost bunker-like. There's no sign, but American flags - and, this week, a French one - flank the entrance. Inside there are metal detectors to make sure visitors, who come here by appointment only, don't lift items from the massive collection assembled by Kenneth Rendell.

KENNETH RENDELL: These are D-Day plans, maps, and then the actual landings.

SHEA: Rendell was born during World War II and owns more than 500,000 archival items and objects. He says he started collecting about 60 years ago.

RENDELL: And my first World War II artifacts were what every kid in the 1940s had - canteens and camping equipment. Everything was available for almost no money at the local war surplus store.

SHEA: In the years after the war, Rendell said people weren't interesting in battle maps, propaganda posters and documents. He says everyone just wanted to forget.

RENDELL: But it was clearly the defining event of the 20th century. So I started acquiring the archives. I often describe it that for 30 years, I was the eccentric. People would ask me why was I collecting all this stuff? And then, for the next 15 years it's been, my God. How did you ever do it? So I went from eccentric, to profit.

SHEA: In a brochure, Rendell calls the museum a sacred mission to save the reality of those who saved the world. His goal from the beginning was, and still is, education. And Rendell, who has written several books, says his collection is so vast because this war was so well documented.

RENDELL: Because of photography, because of radio, you had masters of oratory. With Churchill...


WINSTON CHURCHILL: We may allow ourselves of brief period of rejoicing. But let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead.

ADOLF HITLER: (Speaking German).

SHEA: Speeches by Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler also play through speakers. Rendell curated these rooms and tells the wars' story chronologically, beginning in Germany before World War I. The rise of the Third Reich section is both horrifying and fascinating. There's an image of Hitler on a horse, wearing shining armor.

RENDELL: This is the contents of Hitler's artist studio. These are his paints, his paintbrushes. I like jarring things like this. To me, this was invaluable.

SHEA: A few feet away under glass there are work passes with pictures of German soldiers.

RENDELL: He looks like the guy who'll double-cross you. This is the guy who'll stab you straight on. This guy looks like a poor, scared kid who was drafted into the army from Eastern Europe.

SHEA: Rendell wants to get the point across that war is personal for every citizen and soldier.

RENDELL: War is not remote. What we have going on in Afghanistan is not remote. Those are real people over there. And I give a real sense here by having ordinary objects that people, particularly students, can identify with.

SHEA: The collection includes a huge range of ordinary things - letters, photographs, gun shells, military-issued cigarettes and condoms - also artifacts, donated by General George Patton's estate. Rendell is particularly interested in what it was like for the American soldiers in World War II. He recalls an iconic image taken from a landing craft as the young men entered the smoke-filled Normandy Beach.

RENDELL: That photograph terrified me as a kid. I could not imagine what it could be like to have to get out of that landing craft into that withering machine gun fire - if you weren't blown up on the way in, as so many boats were hit by big artillery fire.

SHEA: In 1994, Rendell actually bought the Omaha Beach Museum's entire collection. He says the owner of it didn't think there would be interest after the 50th anniversary. French soldiers' uniforms are on display for 70th anniversary of D-Day, alongside American parachutes and gear.

RENDELL: I want you to have a sense. I want to see what was in Morley Piper's backpack. How did he live? What did he carry ashore? What did every soldier carry ashore when they - when they landed on D-Day?

SHEA: Morley Piper is a man who enlisted in the U.S. military when he was 18. He and I spoke before he left for Normandy to commemorate the invasion's 70th anniversary. Piper says he spent hours sifting through maps and battle plans in the World War II museum.

MORLEY PIPER: It means a lot to the old guys of World War II because it preserves their memories and helps us keep a bond. It's a wonderful place to us.

SHEA: Morley Piper is one of the many veterans Rendell invites to the museum each week to share their personal stories.

PIPER: It was supposed to have been the day before, June 5, but the weather was bad. So we sat out in the harbor for two nights, I guess it was, before we went over.

RENDELL: Morley Piper lands in Omaha Beach, all the bunkers are operating. Virtually nothing's been destroyed.

PIPER: I don't know what to say. I could see battleships and destroyers for as far as you could see. And they were shelling the shore.

RENDELL: Morley fought for 11 straight months into Germany. And he described how every night, he slept in a shell hole or a burned out building. And every night he shook and cried at what he had had to do that day and that he had to get up the next day and do it all over again. That's the reality.

SHEA: At 89 years old, Morley Piper says it's inevitable that World War II stories will fade from the collective memory, just as he believes World War I has. But collector Kenneth Rendell will keep fighting that. He plans to expand his museum to accommodate more students and, while he can, more vets. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Andre Shea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.