Seventy-five years ago this December, an early morning attack by Japanese bombers on a naval base at Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into a second world war. The catastrophic effects resounded everywhere, including Fulton County.
To commemorate the local experience, the Fulton County Historical Museum is presenting “Fulton County Fighting for Freedom in World War II,” a comprehensive two-room exhibit that captures the emotions and American pride of the era. It also honors local men who served on foreign battlefields between 1941-45.
“Heartstrings were pulled as the veterans (returned and) told their experiences in Europe and the South Pacific,” said John Swearingen Jr., museum director. “It was not an unpopular war, but it was also not a controversial war, like Vietnam.”
It was a time when everyone sacrificed for the war effort, he said. Gas and other everyday necessities were rationed, leading people drink an ersatz coffee drink called Postum and using oleo colored with yellow dye instead of butter.
The women left behind took men’s places in factories and volunteered in shifts to watch for enemy planes.
Called the Hero Generation, “It’s bad enough that these peop0le had to live through the Depression when they were kids, but then they had to go to war,” Swearingen said.
Opened April 10 at 229 Monroe St. in Wauseon, the exhibit includes a treasure trove of wartime memorabilia, most from the museum’s own archives and some on loan from Sauder Village. Visitors can peruse a display of Nazi equipment such as a flag bearing a swastika, a German uniform, a belt, guns, and knives.
It also contains bullet shells collected by American soldier Marion Morr of Delta during the liberation of the Nazis’ Dachau concentration camp in May of 1945. The bullets were fired by Jewish prisoners to kill camp guards who had been their tormentors during their internment.
A display of Japanese items includes a map recovered from a soldiers’ camp, a hand-held fan printed with the Rising Sun design, Japanese yen, and trinkets sold during the war.
Plenty of U.S. memorabilia is also displayed, including war ration books, savings bonds, and wartime posters once displayed in a downtown Wauseon bank.
Visitors can also see letters U.S. soldiers wrote home to their loved ones. Swearingen said they reveal both the men’s pride in serving their country and the mixed feelings they shared about the bloodier aspects of their service.
“The majority did not want to talk about their experiences,” he said. “They weren’t proud of killing other people, and they didn’t like to watch their friends being killed left and right. Those sentiments were expressed in the letters.”
Much of the memorabilia has remained in the museum’s storage for lack of display space. Many of the items have been donated by veterans’ families over the past 20 years as the World War II soldiers have died.
And they tell stories of local participants in the war effort.
• Wauseon resident Corwin Porter was assigned to the USS Reuben James in October of 1941, just two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt sent the warship along with others to the North Atlantic to prevent Nazi control of the area. Porter was among 115 of the 160 crew members who died when the Reuben James was torpedoed by a German submarine.
The Purple Heart he was awarded is on display in the exhibit.
• Wauseon resident Robert Funkhouser was one of 1,196 crew members on the USS Indianapolis when it was sunk by a Japanese torpedo on June 30, 1945. The 900 men who escaped the sinking ship were left floating in the ocean to endure nearly five days of vicious shark attacks before a rescue was managed. Only 317 men survived the wait, including Funkhouser, who died in Wauseon in 1976.
A film version of the event, “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” starring Nicholas Cage, will be released to theaters nationwide on May 27.
• Marjorie Whiteman, a 1915 graduate of Wauseon High School and an attorney, was working for the government in Washington, D.C., when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to become a legal advisor for a project following the war: the formation of the United Nations.
The exhibit reaches closer to home with the re-creation of two rooms in Wauseon, the kitchen at the home of Gabe and Lillie Thierry at 644 W. Elm St. on July 14, 1944, and the living room at the home of Ilo Lewis at 122 Willow St. on May 20, 1943. The rooms were sites of war-related events on those respective dates, although Swearingen won’t reveal beforehand to prospective exhibit visitors what occurred.
“These rooms fairly feel like you’ve walked back in time in someone’s house,” he said.
Other exhibit features include several minutes of highlights from “That They Shall Not Be Forgotten,” a series of interviews of World War II veterans conducted by the late Wauseon resident DeFord Schwall; photos of women who replaced men in local factories during the war, producing items for American soldiers; and photos of the softball teams formed by those factory workers.
Jana Rupp, a Fulton County Historical Society trustee, was pivotal in bringing the exhibit to life. Her father was pulled from his senior year in high school to serve in the war.
“It was very exciting to put it together. It’s very dear to me, this time period,” She said. “I grew up with my parents talking about that time. Just transforming the building was very fun.”
It’s Rupp’s hope the exhibit will touch the hearts of younger generations for whom World War II is far removed from their lives.
“It’s so important to remember what that era of men and women did for us. It’s why (kids) have what they have. I don’t think it should be forgotten. It’s a lot about what the people who didn’t go to war did to help.
“It’s a lot of visual, and I think that will attract younger people. I really hope that it does generate some interest. It is worth seeing.”
Swearingen said the exhibit, which runs through late November, will likely evoke strong emotions and feelings of patriotism.
“It makes you proud to be an American,” he said.
The Fulton County Historical Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The exhibit is included in the general $4 admission.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.