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In Georgia, Unlocking POW Stories

By Jonathan Lerner
The Washington Post
Sunday, July 12, 1998; Page E04
   


Andersonville--the name--might have a homey ring, if only we could forget the horror enacted in that central Georgia town. There, during the Civil War, an open-air Confederate prison held 45,000 Union soldiers, some 13,000 of whom succumbed to disease, starvation and exposure. Now the Andersonville National Historic Site--an easy detour if you're driving past Atlanta on I-75--is home to the newly opened National Prisoner of War Museum. This handsome and affecting facility commemorates not only those who suffered there, but Americans taken prisoner in all of our country's conflicts since the Revolution.

I am a child of the '60s, by which I mean I was among those who ardently protested the Vietnam War. I am chagrined to say that at the time I had little sympathy for those who were sent to fight it, or even for those who fell captive. After visiting Andersonville's new museum, I feel touched by their awful experience--and as appalled by war as ever.

The museum makes its impact at first glance. It is a harsh, post-modern stockade of concrete and brick, surrounded by a zone of broken granite, symbolic of the "dead line" beyond which imprisoned soldiers dared not step. Inside, impressionistic multimedia exhibits portray experiences common to prisoners of war--capture, interrogation, suffering and survival, longing for home, escape attempts, liberation. Archival photos, films and sound recordings are used, plus interviews with survivors and original artifacts: the little tambourine-shaped wooden canteen, with a worn leather strap, shared by five inmates of Andersonville; the cross defiantly raised in a World War II Japanese POW camp on Bataan to honor fallen comrades after the captors gave their American prisoners a bag of cement.

A tour of the museum ends in a serene sculpture court. Step beyond its protective walls and you are suddenly gazing over the green crease in the landscape where the grisly Andersonville stockade once stood. The view, and the museum, are a test of imagination and remembrance.

Andersonville National Historic Site is about 25 miles west of I-75. The National Prisoner of War Museum is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1; free admission. Details: 912-924-0343, http://www.nps.gov/ande/.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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