The men and women who left their homes in Raleigh to serve during World War II have memories of where they stood when they heard Pearl Harbor had been bombed, of the loved ones they lost and of the dangerous days when many fought on foreign soil.
But they also still carry the memories of their day-to-day lives in military service, of what they wore, whom they befriended and how they passed the time.
A new exhibit at the City of Raleigh Museum, “Our War: Voices of Raleigh’s World War II Veterans,” seeks to illuminate the full range of experiences lived by WWII veterans by sharing their stories with the public.
“It’s not all storming the beaches. It’s not all jumping out of airplanes with a knife in your teeth,” said Ernest Dollar, director of the museum.
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The exhibit, which opens Saturday, also seeks to highlight the experience of those often left out of the history books, including women and black veterans.
For months, the exhibit’s curators have been interviewing veterans and gathering their stories, while collecting artifacts that help illustrate what they’ve found.
Dollar said the exhibit is deliberately heavy on photographs paired with quotations and video elements that allow the veterans to tell their experiences in their own words. But it also includes the photographs they took and the items they collected, from a painted conch shell to a pair of Samurai swords.
The stories of black veterans in the exhibit include their experiences of life in a segregated military, including restrictions on where they could travel stateside and, often, the greater freedoms they experienced while stationed in Europe.
The exhibit also asks questions about how their war experiences shaped the veterans when they returned to Raleigh, for better or worse.
“We look at the long shadow of war through the lives of these veterans,” Dollar said.
At a time when a new generation is returning from war, Dollar hopes the exhibit also will get visitors thinking about what those veterans will experience.
Robert L. McMillan, Jr., 90, is a Raleigh native who talked with the curators about his experiences as a Marine during WWII. McMillan, a lawyer, also served in Korea.
He was glad to have the chance to participate in the exhibit.
“It was a lot of fun – a lot of pleasure, a lot of poignancy,” he said.
McMillan will speak at Saturday’s opening, which also will serve as a remembrance of the 70th anniversary of D-Day and and the Allied invasion at Normandy.
McMillan plans to recall the lives of the men and women he grew up with in Raleigh and their contributions during the war, including the stories of those who died.
As he walks past the houses where they once lived, he recalls their stories daily.
“It is sacred ground to me,” he said.
French officials, including the mayor of Raleigh’s sister city of Compiegne, will also join in the ceremony.
The exhibit will be open for about two years.