One of the first things you’ll see as you enter the exhibit is a fallen soldier’s battle cross. It includes a helmet and boots, but no rifle. Exhibit curator and Art Center of Battle Creek executive director Linda Holderbaum says she wanted the display to be about art and personal memories of World War II, not about the violence and weapons of war.
One artifact is a hand-made, olive green sweater vest, now slightly frayed at the neck.
“The wife made it for him,” Holderbaum says, “but it was not Army issue, so if wives made those for their husbands they couldn’t wear on the outside of their uniforms because it wasn’t standard, so they had to wear it under their uniforms. They really came in handy if the soldier was someplace cold.”
Holderbaum says the exhibit includes many photographs taken locally during World War II.
“The Fort Custer Historical Society loaned us a nice photo collection on Fort Custer," she says. "It’s really a neat history. Of course the soldiers came into town and interacted with our population. We had German prisoners of war that were kept here and about twenty of them are buried at Fort Custer National Cemetery. We had some celebrities that came here. Jack Benny was here at Fort Custer and Eisenhower was here, while he was a General, before he was president, he was here with Generals Bradley and Patton.”
There are also more personal items from local veterans' families.
“We put out a call to the community asking for World War II items from them or family members that we could borrow," says Holderbaum. "It really varied what I got from everybody. Some people had uniforms and medals and discharge papers and photographs and some didn’t have very much at all. Some people just brought in boxes and let us go through them, so that was fun to go through that.”
The exhibit includes a few surviving samples of what was called v-mail sent between troops and their loved ones.
“They photographed the mail on microfilm that reduced it in size to a quarter of a square inch. Then, after sending the mail, they enlarged it, but the enlargements are only like a quarter of a page,” Holderbaum explains.
One wall of the exhibit is filled with artwork made by World War II veteran Bill Betts, who later became a founder of the Arts Center of Battle Creek.
“He was a graphic designer before he went to into the Navy,” Holderbaum says, “He ended up as a lieutenant on a ship in the Pacific. He drew these wonderful pictures of the ships he was on. He was on a liberty ship and they carried a lot of armament so the ports wouldn’t always let them very close to shore, so they anchored of shore, and he drew pictures of the men during leisure time. And, then we have this piece he did of soldiers in war, and that’s sort of the signature piece of the exhibit.”
Art and Memories of World War II is on display at the Art Center of Battle Creek through February 23.