The world fell in on Vice President Harry Truman on April 12, 1945, the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt died.
Earlier that day, Truman dictated a friendly letter to his sister-in-law mentioning he’d gained some weight and was very busy. After Roosevelt’s death he added the handwritten note: “This was dictated before the world fell in on me.”
The letter is one of 93 items in “ Till We Meet Again,” a new exhibit commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the beginning of Truman’s presidency. Many of the artifacts have never been on display here before.
“We try to carry people back into that time period,” said Clay Bauske, who has been curator at the Truman Library for 31 years. “What was the United States doing at the time? What were people doing?”
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“I think, unfortunately, the people who actually lived and served in World War II are rapidly leaving us.” he said.
“I think it’s very important to do cross-generational education to the extent we can … the experience of World War II is something that I think younger people today need to know and need to experience in some way. So my greatest hope is that multigenerational families will come in and look at the exhibit together.”
The exhibit was funded by donations from individuals and organizations.
Many of the items are irreplaceable: the safety cap from a bomb that fell on Nagasaki, a prayer book that saved a soldier’s life, a letter from Baroness Maria von Trapp to Truman when he became president.
“The most poignant artifact, not just in this exhibit but in our entire collection, is that safety plug from the atomic bomb that dropped on Nagasaki,” Bauske said. “It’s one of those pieces that when people look at it they just have a visceral reaction to what that is associated with: the impact that atomic bomb had obviously on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but the impact that it had on the entire course of the world.”
The prayer book with its metal cover and the spoon were donated to the library in 1993 by George E. Ferris, a soldier from Independence.
“He had those in his pocket while he was a foxhole in Germany. Only two weeks before the war ended in Europe, he was shot by a sniper and the bullet went through his prayer book, through his spoon, but that slowed the trajectory down enough that although he was wounded, he was not killed and survived and was able to come home from the war. It was a prayer book that basically saved his life,” Bauske said.
One of the most powerful artifacts to Janeen Aggen, media liaison for the Truman Library Institute, is a map from Truman’s war room which had been destined for the trash, until George Elsey, a Truman aide, saw workmen pulling maps from the wall after the war.
According to Bauske, Elsey gathered the maps up, took them to his home for safekeeping and in the mid-’90s he rediscovered the maps in his home and decided to donate them to the Truman Library and the White House.
“The complication was these maps had never been declassified, so they were still top secret, but he had kept them in his home for like 40 years,” Bauske said. “Technically he could have been arrested for keeping government secrets at home. What the National Archives did was send somebody out to declassify these maps before he donated them.”
The map he donated to the Truman Library is a National Geographic map which shows the steps for a planned invasion of Japan written out in blue crayon.
Aggen’s father was in the Pacific serving on a Navy ship. “If the bomb had not been dropped and if America had sent in troops and ships, it is entirely possible that many Americans would have lost their lives, including my father,” Aggen said.
Other items in the exhibit include: A Japanese news reel about the bombing of Pearl Harbor; an audio clip of Roosevelt’s February 1942 fireside chat; a ceremonial copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf which Hitler gave to Dr. Robert Ley, a member of his inner circle; a utilities marker from a wall in Hilter’s home in the Alps known as the Berghof; a Malachite box, a gift from the people of Belgium to Truman, holding nine soil samples from battlefields around Bastogne, Belgium where American soldiers had died; a leaflet dropped from a U.S. Army bombing plane on Winchester, Penn., with the inscription: “If this were a bomb dropped by an enemy plane you would not be alive NOW. Don’t Be bombed!! Buy United States Defense Bonds and Stamps.”
Posters of the era scattered throughout the display tell their own stories of the war: A man raising a clenched fist with the words “Avenge December 7”; another reads “Vacancies Exist Enlist Now”; a poster gives steps for “What to do in Blackout,” advising everyone to stay at home and “let no light escape from your home.” Women’s roles are frequent themes: “She’s a WOW (Women Ordinance Worker)” and “Housewives! Save waste fats for Explosives! Take them to your meat dealer.”
“In World War II how do you get the word to the general public; how do you get inspiration out to them; how do you get them to commit to something?” Bauske said. “In those days it was the poster. That was the way you communicated. Today in lieu of posters you probably have tweets, you have Facebook posts, all kinds of social media.”
The exhibit is about individuals rather than battles, Bauske said.
“We focused on the bigger picture. What I’m hoping is that people who come in here will get a feel for what the atmosphere around the world was, more than a specific knowledge of this battle happened here and that battle happened there.”
And always there is the theme of Truman running through the exhibit.
In a letter written by Bess Truman, she complains to her mother in Independence about coffee rationing.
Another letter written by Truman when he served in the Senate explains that Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall denied his request to serve in the military after Pearl Harbor. Truman had been an artillery captain during World War I.
“George Marshall told him, ‘No you’re staying in the senate because you’re more important there now,’” Bauske said.
Both Bauske and Aggen hope families will come and learn together, sharing stories they might have heard or been part of related to WWII.
“People should really appreciate the opportunity to have something in their backyard that is of national and worldwide importance,” Aggen said. “This 70th anniversary of the ending of WWII and Truman’s presidency is attracting national and international attention, with queries and visits by Japanese media and Russian media. Instead of traveling across the country, people in Kansas City have the opportunity to get in their cars and be there in 20 minutes.”
Truman Library events
The Harry S. Truman Library will host several World War II events and programs related to World Ward II and the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of VE Day and Harry Truman’s presidency during 2015.
A new museum exhibit: Till We Meet Again: The Greatest Generation in War and Peace, will be on display through Jan. 3, 2016. Hours for the exhibit are: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
Two unique documents will have a short stay at the museum: The original German surrender document will be displayed through May 18; and, Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s rescript, or order to his people to lay down their arms and surrender, will be displayed Aug. 14-Sept. 11.
Active duty military and veterans will be admitted free to the museum through Aug. 15.
Events scheduled this year include:
▪ Buck Days May 2, admission to the Truman Library and Museum will be $1. In honor of Truman’s birthday.
▪ V-E Day commemoration, May 8, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Includes Wreath Laying Ceremonies in the Truman Courtyard and Keynote Addresses by Maj. General Karen LeDoux and WWII Brig. General Bob LeBlanc. Lunch for veterans at 11:30 a.m. Meet the president with reenactor Niel Johnson 1:30-3:30 p.m.
▪ V-J Day, Aug. 15, Program sharing eyewitness accounts from WWII veterans commemorating the 70th anniversary of V-J Day.
▪ WWII Weekends every second Saturday through September. Includes 1945-era music, Talkin’ WWII program, Free guided WWII tours, Truman re-enactor, WWII White House West Wing simulation.
▪ 1945 Film Series on the second Sunday of each month through September. The WWII-era films which will be shown are: “The Story of G.I. Joe,” May 10; “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” June 14; “Anchors Aweigh,” July 12; “They Were Expendable,” Aug. 9; and “Weekend at the Waldorf,” Sept. 13. Admission is free.
▪ White Glove Wednesdays at 11 a.m. every Wednesday through September. Museum staff will show rare artifacts housed at the library. Free with museum admission.
▪ Lecture Series, May 5, President go to War by Theodore W. Wilson; June 10, the Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan; July 14 Downfall: The end of the Imperial Japanese Empire.
For information go to trumanlibraryinstitute.org or www.trumanlibrary.org.