WWII Vets' Souvenirs, Stories on Display

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It was only a few hours before the opening of an exhibition on Maryland veterans in World War II when curator Jeannine Disviscour finally had to start saying no. The offers of long-stored helmets, boots and flags had been coming in steadily, but as workers pasted up final display labels, there was no time to add more.

"We just can't get it in the show," said Disviscour when one of her colleagues announced that former Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) had sent over a box of personal items. Another box of personal items. "Put it in my office. We can rotate them in later."

The former governor and comptroller has been one of the more enthusiastic donors to the exhibit, which opened yesterday at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore with an address by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

"I think it's more or less a last tribute, there are so many of us dying," said Henry Rey, 83, of Fort Smallwood in Anne Arundel County. He served in an Army mortar unit that fought its way across Europe. "But I'm still vertical. The Germans couldn't kill me, and maybe I'll be here for a while longer."

The four rooms of military keepsakes, which will be on display for the next year, commemorate the more than 280,000 Maryland residents who went to war in the 1940s, 6,500 of whom didn't come home alive, Disviscour said. The bulk of the exhibit, which includes weapons, jeeps, battlefield souvenirs and other items carried or scrounged by Marylanders in the war zone, is from the collection of Baltimore investment fund manager George S. Rich.

Rich confesses to having been obsessed with World War II since he was 6. His boyhood collecting of military items grew more serious, and now he includes recorded histories and other personal background with the artifacts he acquires.

"To me, it's all about the stories," said Rich, standing near a chunk of marble wainscoting that an officer pinched from Hitler's Eagle's Nest retreat. "We need to preserve the personal histories behind what these men and women achieved. This was the last war we fought where we really had to fight to survive."

Among Rich's most prized items is the gear that belonged to Baltimore physician Douglas Stone, who operated on D-Day soldiers nonstop for three days and nights at Omaha Beach. Behind the glass are his footwear ("He was standing in blood up to the top of his boots," Rich said), his medical field manual and some gauze-covered shrapnel.

The state's industrial contribution gets ample notice in the collection, from a rivet gun used to construct liberty ships (built largely by a female workforce) to models of Martin Aviation's B-26s and other aircraft to Baltimore's Stieff Silver Co., which made a wartime shift from tea sets to surgical instruments.

The exhibit opens with a crisp row of uniforms, the first of which was worn by then-Capt. William Donald Schaefer when he ran an army hospital in Blandford Forum in southern England. During his long and colorful career in politics, Schaefer wasn't known to talk often about his military experiences.

"He was very humble about his service," Disviscour said. "He didn't consider himself a combat veteran so he didn't bring it up."

Schaefer, 87, was scheduled to attend the opening but at the last minute chose not to come. He lives in a retirement complex outside Baltimore and doesn't make many public appearances, according to his friend and former press aide Louise Hayman.

But dozens of Maryland veterans from the era did come, some in wheelchairs or with walkers. They leaned on canes and doffed VFW caps for the national anthem, and sat up straight to hear their governor describe the "patriotic humility" with which they rescued their state, their country and the world half a century ago.

"It is humbling and awe-inspiring," O'Malley said, "to be here in the presence of so many of Maryland's most courageous citizens."

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