BACK TO BATAAN, Corregidor, Pearl Harbor, Saipan, Bougainville, Guadalcanal. The stuff John Wayne movies were made of has been assembled at the Marine Corps Museum to show the Marines' role in World War II.
The exhibit ranges from trench art to samurai swords. While in a prison camp in Manchuria, an American soldier etched a battle scene on his mess kit, inscribing it, "Battle of Bataan, Philippine Islands, 1940- 42." He'd been captured there, and although his mess kit made it back, he didn't. In World War II, Japanese soldiers sometimes carried old samurai swords into battle. Captured on Guadalcanal, one on display here dates from the 1750s. The standard-issue military swords were fashioned after these family heirlooms.
"The samurai sword was a great souvenir during the war," said Ken Smith-Christmas, a curator at the museum, as he guided a visitor through the exhibit. "People hadn't been capturing other peoples' swords since the Civil War. The first thing a conqueror does is disarm everybody. We got a lot of swords there."
There are 16 battle stations to stop at in the exhibit, "From Dawn to Setting Sun: The U.S. Marine Corps in World War II." Each has its own map and array of artifacts, chosen for historic rather than artistic significance. Captured from a Japanese bunker on Guadalcanal, an American flag here looks blinded, with all its stars cut out. The Japanese apparently dyed the detached stars yellow, then sewed them on their caps and cloth helmet covers.
There are many more Japanese flags here than American. "They may have been the bad guys on the other side, wearing black hats," says Smith-Christmas, "but they had great flags." Military forces flew colors bearing the rising sun, but soldiers themselves often carried their own flags with a "meatball" insignia, a sun without rays. These personal flags were autographed by family and friends and inscribed with good luck messages.
The Marine Corps was committed to the war in the Pacific, and 392 photos dramatize the events there. But the most moving artifacts are the letters -- last letters home, letters of condolence and an eloquent letter from a kid sister to a commanding general telling how much she missed her brother, killed at Iwo Jima. Her brother, she mentioned, had promised to take her dancing on her 18th birthday.
And so it turned out that, when the day came, the commanding general bought the orchids. The enlisted men in her brother's unit bought her a ballgown. And a Marine staff sergeant was dispatched to her birthday party to dance with her.
FROM DAWN TO SETTING SUN: THE U.S. MARINE CORPS IN WORLD WAR II -- At the Marine Corps Museum, Building 58, Navy Yard, through 1985.