It is called the greatest conflict in human history. Over 55 million people dead. Entire cities decimated. Continents ravaged. Families torn apart. It was a defining moment of humanity’s short time on Earth. The entire world was at war.
A byproduct of the abysmal handling of ‘The Great War,’ World War II has become a legendary segment of our history. It was, in the truest sense of the term, good vs. evil. Across four continents, the United States, Britain and our allies fought valiantly to beat back the tyranny of the Axis. Never in human history was there a conflict that included so many people, and nations, and landscapes; never in human history was there a conflict that included such carnage, and death, and courage.
The sheer number of lives lost is staggering. The ways they were lost - horrifying. To ensure that this never happens again, we must educate ourselves so that we may see the warning signs before it’s too late.
I took the short drive from Ellicottville to Eldred, Pennsylvania to visit the Eldred World War II Museum. As a student of the war, I try to soak in as many museums and exhibits whenever I get the chance. Most of us have a connection to the conflict (Grandpa Timkey drove Sherman tanks across the European Theatre), and I highly encourage all our readers to make the trip. Eldred’s Museum is one of the finest and most impressive I have ever visited.
Upon pulling into the parking lot, I’m welcomed by a memorial engraved with names and a giant American flag. I walk through the entrance, and history comes to life. To the left, statues depicting women making munitions shed light on the museum’s genesis, while the walls show displays of Patton’s 3rd Army Advance and inspirational posters of the times.
I’m greeted by Steve Appleby, the museum’s curator and director. Already, I can tell I’m in for a treat. His knowledge of the war is vast; his enthusiasm - infectious. (Appleby will be speaking at the Ellicottville Memorial Library on Sept. 9 at 7:30pm - make sure you head over and listen.)
“Originally, there was a plant in Eldred that built explosives for the oil industry,” he said, referencing Pennsylvania’s heritage in the oil and gas business. “In 1940, the British asked for our (the United States’) help, because they couldn’t produce enough munitions to keep fighting the Nazis. Remember, this was before we had entered the war.”
At this point, President Roosevelt knew that sooner or later, push would come to shove. Knowing full well what the Nazis were capable of and recognizing that the Brits desperately needed our help, he enacted programs like ‘Lend & Lease’ and ‘Carriers for Bases’ - strategies that still appealed to the American populace’s desire for isolationism, all the while assisting Britain’s fight to stave off Nazi invasion.
“The plant was converted into a munitions factory,” Appleby said. “It made 3-inch mortars, 2-inch smoke mortars and brass bronze fuses for bombs. The population of Eldred at that point was around 800, but at its peak, the factory employed around 1,500. Most of them were women and young girls, which is why the statues you see are of women.”
After December 7, 1941 - “A Day that will live in Infamy” - and the United States entered the war, the plant started producing for the entire Allied force. In total, it churned out over 8 million pieces of ordnance. At the end of the film Tora! Tora! Tora!, Japanese Naval Marshal General Isoruku Yamamoto says, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant, and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The world - and especially the Axis - had no idea how quickly America would be willing to charge into battle. The Axis had awoken the sleeping giant. The American war machine was ready.
“The museum’s founder, Tim Roudebush, wanted us to have a place dedicated to the women who worked here. Not in Pittsburgh, or Chicago, or Buffalo. Right here in Eldred. His father George owned the original plant.”
So in 1996, the museum was born. It started in the initial room that you walk in to, but soon an addition was put on the back. And when the furniture store next door went out of business, the museum’s director decided to buy, connect, and convert it into more space to showcase exhibits. All of a sudden, a memorial to the women who worked in the factory became a full-blown museum.
“We’re always adding new things,” Appleby told me. “This is why we were founded. We want to showcase and educate people of the supreme sacrifice that was made by everyone involved in the conflict. Without these individuals, we would not have won the war.”
Sunlight dances through the two stained glass windows that lie at the back of the first room we visit, which is a dazzling dedication to Normandy, shipping and transportation, North Africa and the Navy. The window on the left portrays the munitions the factory made; on the right, a woman depicting the famous Rosie the Riveter with “The Women Behind the Front Lines” captioned underneath.
The dominant showcase of the room is a circular, glass-enclosed model of Omaha Beach at Normandy - complete with ships and ‘hedgehogs’ (the steel X-shaped defenses the Nazis placed on the beaches to penetrate landing craft). There’s even a Mason Jar of sand from the beach itself.
“We have this so everyone who comes in can say they touched the sand of Normandy beach,” Appleby said. “This is how we won the war. Not by ships, or guns, or aircraft - but the ferocious courage of soldiers who stormed across 300 yards of open sand amidst heavy Nazi fire to take the beachhead. It was individuals who won the war.”
After soaking in the rest of the main room, Appleby takes me downstairs, where there are exhibits on the Eastern (Russian) Front, World War I, the rise of the Nazis and Imperial Japan and the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“We have these displays to show people the mistakes we made. We saw the Rape of Nanking (the Japanese in China), Hitler’s penning of Mein Kempf, the British and French appeasement of the Nazis when they took the industrialized Rhineland, the Sudetenland, Austria and Czechoslovakia. We saw the signs, yet chose to do nothing until the Japanese forced our hand with the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
We go back upstairs to the newly-constructed hallway connecting the original building to the old furniture store. It’s called Mitchell Paige Hall, a brilliant dedication to one of the most incredible men of the war.
“At 17, Mitchell Paige walked from Pittsburgh to Baltimore - over 200 miles - in an attempt to join the Marines,” Appleby said. “They turned him away. Too skinny and too young. Rejected but not discouraged, he walked back to Pittsburgh. A couple of days before his 18th birthday, he walked back to Baltimore. They told him he was of age, but he was still too skinny - just 4 pounds short of weight - so he ate bananas and drank milk until he cleared. Mitchell Paige was officially a Marine.”
Paige was shipped off to China, then the Phillipines, before seeing active duty when the United States entered the war in the Pacific Theatre. The Japanese recognized that Guadalcanal was a primary strategic target to build an airfield on - it would have allowed their bombers to hit the United States’ base of ops in the Pacific, Australia. The stage for battle had been set.
“Paige had 33 men and 4 Browning machine guns on a hill at Guadalcanal,” Appleby explained. “Initially, it was thought that between 2,500-3,000 Japanese troops - the elite 2nd Division Sendai - stormed his position. That’s an incorrect figure. It was closer to 4,000. Paige and his Marines kept them at bay. Most of his men were killed or maimed too badly to continue fighting. At dawn the next day, the Japanese attempted to take the hill again - this time, the number is around 800-900. Paige, who looked around and saw the carnage that resembled his unit, decided “enough was enough.” He grabbed the 54-pound Browning (which severely burned his arm), two belts of ammo, and charged down the hill. He was shot multiple times. The Japanese scattered. One man’s courage saved the airfield on Guadalcanal.”
Paige’s valor earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest and most prestigious award one can receive. Retired in California, he visited the Eldred Museum 6 times. After his death, he donated all of his Marine belongings to the exhibit. In the speaker’s room, there’s a statue of him dedicated in his honor.
Adjacent to the speaker’s room is a section that’s roped off, and I already knew what lie behind it. It’s never easy seeing things and reading about what transpired in Hitler’s death camps, but it’s the most important thing we were fighting against. Fighting the Nazis wasn’t just about preventing the Third Reich from taking over the entire world … it was defeating the ideals that the regime stood for.
“We need this exhibit,” Appleby said. “It’s shocking. It’s supposed to be shocking. People need to be horrified, they need to be shocked, they need to know what happened.”
On display, you see photos of human beings resembling skeletons. You see a black SS - or Schutzstaffel - hat with the death skull insignia. You see a Nazi Luger pistol, whips, crude scissors. But it isn’t until Appleby leaves the room and reenters with the most shocking artifact, the one his board of directors won’t allow him to put on display. I immediately recognize it, and my stomach drops. It is a lamp, with a lampshade made of human skin. It is one of two to be known in existence in the entire world.
“I’ve fought our board to allow us to display this,” he says. “I gave an impassioned speech to them, asking for permission. It’s shocking, and that’s the point. It’s meant to show people that this actually happened. There are people who still don’t believe the Holocaust happened. Younger people need to be made aware, so something like this never, ever happens again.”
The Holocaust exhibit hits deep, but that’s what it’s supposed to do. We leave it, and enter ‘The Blue Room,’ which has a heavy emphasis on the Pacific Theatre (and a blue floor to match). Here, I find some of the coolest exhibits of any World War II museum I’ve ever been to.
There is a vintage Dodge combat truck. There is a cardboard tank made by a local school. There is a portion of a submarine with an actual periscope!
“The Navy was kind enough to donate this to us,” Appleby says of the periscope. Upon entering the submarine (which I find out was built by a local BOCES class), the exhibit comes alive. “Torpedoes Away!” a voice yells, while lights flash around me. I look through the periscope to see the forested landscape of the Allegheny Mountains behind the museum.
While I’m spotting for enemy destroyers with the periscope, he goes into a display and pulls out something I’ve never seen before, and most certainly won’t see again.
“This is a gyroscope, or the tracking device at the front of the torpedo that keeps it on track towards its target,” he explains. “I called Sperry - the manufacturer - to see what I can learn about it. I speak to one individual on the phone, describe it, and get transferred to another person. I repeat the process, until I get transferred again. Before I know it, I’m speaking to the president of the company. He can’t believe what I’m holding in my hands. He immediately offers me $40,000 for it. I told him, “I can’t! It’s the museum’s.” He ups the ante to $50,000, stressing the company would love it for its own personal museum. Again, I say no. As it turns out, there’s only one other known to be in existence - and that’s at this little known place called the Smithsonian.”
The museum is full of hidden treasures like the gyroscope. On the opposite wall, there’s a display case featuring a .45 six shooter pistol. The gun didn’t see just one World War - but two.
“This is Captain Bill’s pistol,” Appleby informed me. “His father carried it in WWI, and it saved his life in the trenches. When his son was about to leave for the Pacific Theatre, he gave it to him. In the Phillipines, the .45 proved vital - it saved the Captain’s life after his 1911 Colt Automatic ran out of ammunition.”
After we finish cruising around the Blue Room - which also features helmets and hats from each branch of the military, one exhibit on Iwo Jima and another featuring Victory in Europe Day - we go into the Tank Room. Here, there’s an authentic mobile command post, complete with a radio, German phrase book, typewriter and Officer’s mess kit.
Dominating the room, however, is a giant battlefield.
“Typically, we have 20-25 remote-controlled tanks that can be driven around, so the kids can stay occupied while the adults read through the exhibits on the walls,” Appleby said. But not without a wry grin, he added that “a lot of times, we find the adults having more fun with the tanks than the kids do.”
He then beckons me up onto a section overlooking the battlefield where there are two mannequins - one dressed in the uniform of a paratrooper, and the other in full Army Blues.
“This is Lawrence Burgoon, and what an incredible story his is. He was a ‘Pathfinder,’ or one of the first 50 men to be dropped behind enemy lines at Normandy. A member of the elite and storied 101st Airborne Division, he’s a three-time Purple Heart recipient, a POW, was injured twice and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. In Belgium (at the Bulge), his unit was overrun. Shot in the shoulder, he lay on the ground while German units passed by him. To make sure he was dead, they put a bayonet in his kidney (which he ultimately lost). But Larry wasn’t done yet. He crawled over a mile and a half through the cold and snow, losing toes and fingers to frostbite. His story of survival is pure determination, and he was my idol growing up.”
The uniforms, which are on loan from the Burgoon family, pay homage to the unbelievable bravery and fortitude these men showed in situations they most certainly wouldn’t have been trained for. Appleby was quick to point out his humility as well. The Veteran’s Association owed Burgoon hundreds of thousands of dollars in backpay, but instead of collecting, he told them, “No. There are kids coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan that need that money more than I do.”
Nearing completion of the museum tour, I asked Appleby how he got involved in becoming the director and curator. A serviceman himself, he understands first-hand what type of sacrifices the Greatest Generation had to endure to safeguard the freedom of our nation, and the world.
“Growing up, I had always been really interested in the subject matter,” he said. “I grew up in Eldred, spent multiple years in the Army as Special Forces, then came home and started working construction. But a WWII museum in my backyard? That was like a dream come true.”
Appleby offered his services to the museum, which already had a director, curator and promotions man. But when the promo man left, Appleby stepped in. When the curator left, he stepped in again. Finally, when the director stepped down, the choice as to whom would lead the museum was quite clear. Under Appleby’s leadership, the museum draws between 8,000-10,000 visitors every year.
The final stop of our tour takes us upstairs to the Robert Andersen Memorial Library, which boasts over 14,000 books, hundreds of DVD interviews, posters, newspaper clippings, photos, countless uniforms from all branches and even a gold-plated commemorative M-1 Garand rifle.
He leads me to one of the walls, where we look at a display of ‘Trench Art’ - things soldiers made for their sweethearts, oft-times out of munitions casings. There’s a case dedicated to Zippo Lighters, famously made in Bradford, PA.
“George Blasdell, the Marketing Director for Zippo during this time, was a brilliant man,” Appleby said. “He sent 10 Black Crackle lighters to Ernie Pyle of the Stars N’ Stripes magazine, who then distributed them to Eisenhower, Patton, all the heavies. Before you know it, Zippo is a commonplace name, and when everyone comes home from the war, they want one.”
At the Zippo Museum, Appleby told me, there’s a Black Crackle lighter with the engraving Walter Nadler, June 6, 1944, 0615, France. D-Day. The fateful day the Allies stormed Fortress Europe to start the long task of retaking the European mainland. Over 40 years later, someone found it on the beach, returned it to Zippo, who found the guy and returned it to him. Unbelievable story.
As we wound our way back down Mitchell Paige Hall, I had to stop and relish in the history that surrounded me. Many of the men and women who fought and died were much younger than my 25 years of age. They were forced into yet another global conflict. But unlike the first World War, the shining beacon of freedom was very much at stake of being extinguished.
No generation will possibly be able to match what the Greatest Generation did. In the span of four short years, the United States fought - and defeated - two very different enemies on two very different fronts. The industry and production of tanks, bullets, planes, clothing and food will never be replicated. It propelled us into becoming one of the world’s two superpowers. It was one of the defining moments of our nation’s history.
“We want to make sure that people who come here understand just what kind of sacrifices these men and women made,” Appleby said. “That’s the mission of the museum. To honor, showcase and educate.”
As Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The Eldred World War II Museum is located at 201 Main Street, Eldred, PA. Admission is $5 for adults, children 18 and under enter free, and $3 for group tours. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday 10am-4pm and on Sundays 1pm-4pm. More information can be found at www.eldredpawwiimuseum.com
or by calling 814-225-2220.