The fifth town: World War II and Galesburg


by Mike Kroll


World War II was arguably the most historically significant event of the 20th century. This is saying much about a century that saw the great depression, landing a man on the moon and even the Chicago Cubs getting to the world series; among other noteworthy events. But there is no disputing how that war affected people and places on six of seven continents, saw the literal destruction of Europe, Russia and Japan and the death of millions of people around the globe. While the continental United States was spared the direct effects of the war this country was forever changed by it.

World War II brought an end to the great depression and transformed America into the mightiest industrial and military superpower of the era. There was no fighting on the streets of America but young men, boys really, from across this country were asked to fight and did so while those left on the home front saw to it that everything that could be done to help was in fact done. Sacrifice and duty were the watchwords of the day and nearly everyone chipped in for a cause that united us like few others.

Many books have been written about World War II and numerous movies made covering the war from both an historical and fictional perspective. World War II was the first war to occur before the lens of motion picture camera and much of the war was indeed captured on film, some even in surreal color. This fall millions of people tuned in to watch famed filmmaker Ken Burns latest documentary, The War. Fifteen hours over seven nights focusing on the impact of World War II on four American towns and their people. Told from the perspective of regular people who found themselves caught up in events that defied understanding yet compelled action. These were not only soldiers and sailors but even the men and women back home who worked in war production and kept America operating while millions of its men were off fighting and dying in a war overseas.

Galesburg wasn't one of the four towns chosen by Burns and his production team but it was no less impacted by World War II than any other community in this country. Many men from the Galesburg area fought and died in the war and while Galesburg didn't boast shipyards or plants building aircraft and tanks local factories were converted to war production, area farmers became world leading producers of industrial hemp and Galesburg was home to both a German prisoner of war camp and a post-war rehabilitation hospital.

Young men from the Galesburg area volunteered or were drafted to fight in Africa, Europe or the Pacific. They joined the army, navy, marines or coast guard and took up arms regardless of their civilian background. Some trained as pilots, others fought on ships, many were in the army and carried a rifle but regardless of their role or exposure to combat the war was THE lifetime experience for nearly every veteran.

Thousands of area people were direct and indirect participants in World War II and it is hard to believe that someone who was just 18 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 would now be 84 years old. Unfortunately, many of those who saw the war and its impact on America and Galesburg are no longer living to share their stories. Thousands of military veterans of World War II die every day now and those still living are elderly. While the war may well have been the most significant source of memories for these people time is sadly catching up with them and we are losing this repository of living history at an alarming pace.

This past April the Library of Congress and its Veterans History Project joined forces with Ken Burns' team to help capture this important first-hand historical data. Begun in 2000, the Veterans History Project is an national effort to conduct structured interviews with American veterans to capture their first-person reports of the war and its impact. This project continues and the Library of Congress will eventually be the repository of this historical record. Burns' documentary has been yet another very visible and emotionally touching prompt for many to recall their wartime experiences and Galesburg can be no exception.

The Galesburg Public Library is already a participant in the Veterans History Project and together with this newspaper will be conducting a series of evening presentations this winter where portions of the Burns' documentary will be publicly shown and the wartime experiences of Galesburg citizens will be shared and discussed. We will interview local people who will share their wartime experiences and participate in group discussions with session attendees. We also hope to accumulate pictures, papers, letters, mementos and other historical items that can be viewed and saved in the Library archive. America was at war and the people of Galesburg, Illinois were every bit as much a part of it as those from Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Luverne, Minnesota. Galesburg could have been a fifth featured town in the Burns documentary and we hope to this important Galesburg history accessible to everyone.

These very special evenings of thoughtful discussion and shared viewing of Burns' remarkable film are sponsored by the Zephyr and we will run accompanying articles in the paper but we need the help of our readers and their friends and families to make this project a success. If you lived through World War II and want to share your experiences please contact us indicating your desire to participate and telling us how best to contact you. Those wartime experiences can be as a veteran or civilian and you could have been any age during the war so long as you can still vividly recall its impact on you, your family and the community. If you weren't yet born but have family mementos, letters, diaries or scrapbooks covering the war years and would like to share them we also want to hear from you.

Even though World War II ended 62 years ago (more than a decade before I was born) it has always played a role in my personal life as a military history buff just as it has in for most American adults, especially those of us baby boomers whose parents lived it. This country was near economic collapse as the war began yet we concluded the war as one of two international superpowers only to see the American economy go into recession as millions of veterans flooded back home in search of work and a return to civilian life. The GI Bill was as much an economic necessity as it was America's thank you to the millions who served in our armed forces. America rebuilt Europe and Japan after participating in their destruction during the war but it was the war itself that helped revitalize America's own industrial base. The war internationalized an America that had happily been an insignificant player on the world stage and prided itself on its insularity.

The men who returned from overseas brought back more than war stories and war wounds. They were forever impacted by the foreign people and places to which they had been exposed. The war united this country like nothing before or since and helped expose some unsavory truths about just how much we had failed to live up to our own ideals as declared in our Constitution. Post-war America could no longer avoid confronting issues of race, gender and the disparity of economic and political opportunity that characterized this country prior to the war. World War II was not only a fight to stop Germany and Japan military aggression but an opportunity to correct some of the conditions that ultimately led to that war.

World War II changed the world like few other events in human history. No place was immune from those changes, including Galesburg. It is easy now to forget how reluctant this country was to get involved in World War II prior to Pearl Harbor. How non-militaristic and unprepared we were to fight the war. This was a war that demanded sacrifices and extra effort from everyone both in and outside or our military including men officially too young or too old for military service, house wives, school children and the elderly. It is hard to believe that for many of today's young people World War II is ancient history.

Perhaps that helps explain why many of our children are woefully ignorant of even the most basic facts of World War II. Surveys have shown that today's high school students can't reliably identify the participants and alliances and are generally clueless about the geography and timeline of the war itself. Astoundingly such ignorance makes the task of those who seek to rewrite history easier. Some seek to exclude the Holocaust or America's shame of interning citizens of Japanese descent or to minimize the huge cost in civilian lives that was due to both Axis and Allied military actions. It would be convenient to forget about the military and political blunders that cost many lives and prolonged the war and helped create some of the international tensions we face today. History is more than memorizing facts and dates, it must include an understanding of the impact of historical events on one another and the people who lived them.

And history is more than an academic exercise. A complete history encompasses more than just the roles of key leaders and national actions, it must include the impact on the day-to-day lives of people who lived it and their survivors. History is personal. It is of great importance that we collect as much of the personal history of this war and its impact on everyday citizens before such recollections and materials are lost to time. You needn't be concerned or fearful about public speaking, only those who wish to directly participate in our public sessions will be asked to do so but everyone else with stories, pictures, mementos, scrapbooks, letters, diaries, etc. is asked to please share them with us. Help us create and maintain a compelling local historical record of World War II and its impact on the Galesburg area and its people.

If you have elderly family members with stories to tell, even if you suspect these stories haven't yet been shared, we want to hear from you as well. Those of us here at the Zephyr and the staff of the Galesburg Public Library are committed to accumulating as complete and accurate representations of how the War affected this area so be preserved as an important part of Galesburg's historical record. We want to meet and interview as many people as possible, and we will come to them as necessary so long as they are still in the region.

If you want to participate or know of someone we should contact or possess items of interest we ask that you contact us by mail or e-mail. Please do not send historical items to us when you first contact us. Instead simply identify yourself or your friend/family member and tell us about their wartime experiences. Provide a way for us to contact you by telephone or e-mail so we can follow-up. Address letters to “The War,” PO Box One, Galesburg, Illinois  61402-0001 or e-mail and remember to include as much contact information as possible.

The plan is to begin the Library presentations this winter but first we need to identify our local participants and collect as much memorabilia as possible. Please let us know if you wish to donate this material to the Galesburg Public Library's historical archive or merely wish to let us borrow and use it temporarily. We would like to scan pictures, letters and those infamous telegrams announcing that one was drafted or, sadly, that a loved one was lost.