Though World War II was fought overseas, it touched the lives of every member of Chautauqua County, irreversibly changing them.
The war was everywhere. Families huddled around their radios every night, listening for updates. It was plastered on propaganda posters all over town. It consumed resources, as everything from sugar to gasoline was rationed in the country.
Hundreds of local men and women enlisted and left their homes in Chautauqua to fight on foreign land. Those who were left behind on the homefront also participated in fulfilling their patriotic duty in many ways, including organizing scrap metal drives, growing victory gardens, assisting the Red Cross and writing letters.
An original World War II exhibit, A Hometown During War: 1941-1945 debuted at the Robert H. Jackson Center on Thursday, telling the story of the Chautauqua community and how its citizens experienced the war.
P-J photos by Hilary Scott
An original World War II exhibit, A Hometown During War: 1941-1945, debuted at the Robert H. Jackson Center on Thursday, telling the story of the Chautauqua community and how its citizens experienced the war.
"The biggest thing is the sense of community that developed during that time period," said Jennifer Champ, Jackson Center collections manager. "There was really a strong sense that you belonged to this community and you had to give it your all and you had to sacrifice and be a part of the effort, with everyone coming together."
Champ said she thinks that is a really important lesson to transfer to today, as she said that wars today are unfortunately so far away from the American people's reality in some ways.
"But this kind of exhibit brings you right back this was on your radio every night. This was people that you knew, who were in service and who were killed in service. You had to ration your food items. It was very much a part of their lives," she said.
The exhibit was designed by Champ and was made possible through the financial support of Bruce Janowsky, a Jackson Center board member, as well as several organizations that donated items and information. The exhibit received more than 300 donated items from area residents, with about 75 percent becoming permanent additions to the Jackson Center archives.
Champ said that she had a lot of support from the community and was overwhelmed by the number of donations she received. She said that there wasn't enough room to have all the memorabilia in the exhibit, but she is considering switching out some of the material and adding new items as the exhibit continues to run.
"The stories that we are telling are really personal and really emotional," she said.
One of the stories the exhibit tells is of Fred Johanson, who was drafted in 1942. He parachuted into enemy territory in Norway to assist the resistance on the ground. Out of his troop of about 50 soldiers, only half survived the mission, Johanson included. Upon the war's completion and his return, he presented his soon-to-be wife, Elsie, with his parachute from the mission.
She fashioned the life-saving material into the wedding dress she wore on their wedding day. Her daughter and granddaughter later wore the dress as well. On display in the exhibit is the dress, a picture from the couple's wedding, Johanson's Bronze Medal certificate, a picture of his troop and his uniform.
Linking the different items and stories in the exhibit are quotes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats that were played on the radio throughout the war.
"I didn't want to give a history lesson," said Champ. "The Roosevelt quotes kind of are the history lesson. I didn't want to overwhelm people with a huge amount of text. I wanted to give an impression about how this war was actually in everybody's house. Whether you had someone serving or not, it was a part of your life."
The exhibit features a variety of memorabilia, including wartime cook books, ration books and stamps, war savings bonds, propaganda posters and photographs. It also features handwritten letters between soldiers and their loved ones back at home.
One of the letters is from Charles Champ to his wife Jeanne regarding the birth of their son, Douglas, while Champ was stationed in Okinawa during the last year of the war.
"For members of the armed forces, the importance of mail during World War II was second only to food. Military personnel felt a connection to home and family by reading the words of loved ones. The emotional power of letters was heightened by fear of loss and the need for communication during long separation," reads commentary next to the letter.
Other exceptional pieces include an article about a crew of women who maned the Fire Department in Ashville during the war and a striking Post-Journal photo of the jubilation on Third and Main streets on Victory Over Japan Day.
In addition to the many photographs in the exhibit, people can also lookup pictures of local family members that enlisted in a replication of a book donated by the Chautauqua County Historical Society. It features hundreds of pictures of men and women in uniform, many of whom gave the ultimate sacrifice.
The exhibit will be available at least until the end of the year and can be viewed during the center's normal business hours: Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For additional information, call the center at 483-6646 or visit roberthjackson.org.