Virtually Marking Victory with the Imperial War Museums

By the Spring of 1945, Germany had been on the defensive for approximately a year. Allied forces continued a steady advance across German occupied territory, and ultimately into Germany itself. 

Finally, with Hitler dead and Berlin under Red Army control, on May 7 and again on May 8, senior representatives of Germany’s High Command signed documents declaring an unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers. May 8 was declared Victory in Europe (V-E) Day in the United States and the United Kingdom — and celebrations erupted in large cities and small towns alike.

Unfortunately, on the 75th Anniversary of V-E Day, many large-scale public observances of the day are being cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. Like many other aspects of life during this pandemic, some events are being moved online. Such is the case for V-E Day as well.

True to its mission, although its physical locations are closed, the United Kingdom’s Imperial War Museums (IWM) have assembled an extensive and informative website to guide viewers through the major events and themes surrounding V-E Day.

The Imperial War Museums have an extensive collection of wartime artifacts such as this Willys Jeep. It was a gift to the British Red Cross in Italy by the Commander of the US 5th Army. 

The IMW have a long history of documenting war and its consequences. Founded as the National War Museum in 1917, even before the Allied victory in World War I was certain, the museum was established to recognize the contributions of all elements of British society in both fighting the war and supporting the war effort. 

The name was quickly changed to the Imperial War Museum to also acknowledge the critical role played by the militaries, governments and peoples of the British Empire. A committee was formed to begin collecting artifacts, weapons, documents, photographs and other items of interest. King George V formally opened the museum’s first exhibits in London’s Chrystal Palace in 1920. 

This small fishing boat, named the Tamzine, was used in the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk in the spring of 1940.

Through the years, the scope of the IWM broadened to include preserving the stories and chronicling the experiences related to all armed conflicts fought by British, Empire and Commonwealth forces, as well as studying the impact wars and armed conflict have upon societies.  Naturally, as the mission grew  so did the collections. Today there are five distinct museum locations now comprising the Imperial War Museums. The main museum is located in a former mental hospital in the London neighborhood of Lambeth.

In preparation for the centennial of World War I, the IWM – London underwent a $67 million renovation in 2014 to update elements of the museum building and redesign the exhibits. Visitors now enter a four story atrium adorned with articles of war from the past one hundred years, among them a WWI era cannon, a Spitfire fighter aircraft, a V2 Rocket, a Harrier jet, and a car destroyed in a Baghdad bombing.  Wrapping around the atrium are five floors housing the exhibits which transport you through ten decades of British military history, heroics, frustrations, adventures and struggles. The focus though is not a dry and seemingly endless litany of facts about dates, battles, units and weapons, but rather a detailed examination of the impact of wars as told through contemporary accounts and a tremendous collection of artifacts.

This Spitfire fighter aircraft hangs in the open atrium of the IWM – London. It reportedly flew 57 combat missions during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

The IMW’s specially crafted website to commemorate the end of World War II is designated V75. The site’s design aligns very neatly to the overall approach taken by the IWM to developing its physical exhibits and other special programming on war and its impact. Historical summaries, pictures, accounts and cross references to multiple artifacts associated with the end of World War II from the IWM archives are brought together to paint a picture of the experience of war — usually through the eyes of ordinary soldiers and civilians — in order for the viewer to consider, assess and contemplate. While that is more challenging for a two dimensional website, V75 still provides thoughtful overviews and interesting insights.

A German Enigma Machine, which was used to encrypt German diplomatic and military communications. British cryptographers were able to decipher German communications which greatly assisted the Allied war effort.

V75, like other detail rich IWM websites, spreads out like a spider web. Subjects such as the origins of the famous “V” for wartime victory, civilian celebrations in London on V-E Day, or the general election of 1945 lead the viewer to a trove of additional information about other events surrounding the end of World War II and its aftermath.

On Friday, May 8, the V75 website will feature a four-minute audio compilation combining first hand observations and recollections from V-E day, drawn from the extensive archives of the IWM. Britons are being asked to take time to listen to the recordings and reflect on the sacrifices of the World War II years and what the ultimate victory means for them today. 

On the same day, the V75 site will also unveil several new works of art providing contemporary examinations by various artists, including visual arts, spoken word, music and poetry. Later this summer, the V75 website will be updated to include materials and references related to the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 and Victory in Japan (V-J) Day on August 15.

This Union Jack was carried by the British delegation that surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942. During the war, it was hidden by British prisoners. On September 12, 1945, it was raised over the Municipal Building in Singapore after the Japanese surrendered their forces in southeast Asia.  

Commemorations allow us to look back at what was lost, but also at what was gained — and what brought us to where we are today. Spending some time at the Imperial War Museums V75 site reminds us of the sacrifices and losses sustained by an earlier generation in the fight against fascism. It also reveals to us that the world we live in today is still shaped by that war and those sacrifices.

Remembering the Liberators

…we were actually hit by a stench that we immediately knew had to come from burning flesh… everybody who saw what was going on there was literally stunned into silence. The only thing that was spoken after that were when orders were given to move food and blankets into the camp… 

– Sergeant Paul Lenger – 8th Armored Division


On April 13, 1945, elements of the 8th Armored Division assisted in the liberation of the Langenstein-Zwieberge concentration camp, a subcamp of the much larger Buchenwald camp in nearby Weimar, Germany.  More than 7000 prisoners from 23 countries were held at Langenstein-Zwieberge between April 1944 and April 1945. 

The division colors of the 8th Armored, along with the colors of 35 other US Army divisions, are displayed each April at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s annual Days of Remembrance ceremony held in the US Capitol, providing a stately backdrop to the day’s proceedings. These 36 divisions were acknowledged by the US Army Center for Military History has having liberated a Nazi concentration camp. 

The division colors of the 1st Infantry Division. Military units having their own flag, colors, standard or guidon is an ancient military tradition which continues today. US Army colors for infantry divisions have two wide horizontal stripes, one red and one blue with the division’s distinctive shoulder insignia in the middle. On May 8, 1945, the 1st Infantry division liberated Zwodau and Falkenau an der Eger, two subcamps of the larger Flossenbürg concentration camp. 

The first Allied liberation of a Nazi concentration camp occurred on July 24, 1944 as Red Army units advancing west came upon the Majdanek Concentration Camp, located near Lublin, Poland.  Several news outlets, including the New York Times, reported to the world some firsthand accounts of the atrocities the soldiers had found. The Times reporter, W.H. Lawrence referred to Majdanek as “the most terrible place on the face of the earth”.

Grisly discoveries would continue through the Spring of 1945 as Allied armies continued their ground campaigns across German held territory. Red Army units, moving west through German held territory in Ukraine, Belorussia, Poland, and the Baltics liberated many camps, notably Treblinka, Auchwitz, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrueck. British Army units moving west through northern Germany liberated Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen. Further south, the U.S. Army liberated Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenbuerg, Dachau and Mauthausen. 

The division colors of the 4th Armored Division. During World War II, colors for armored divisions had horizontal stripes of red and green. On April 4, 1945, the 4th Armored overran Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, near the German city of Gotha. It was the first Nazi concentration camp liberated by the US Army. One week later, General Eisenhower would visit Ohrdruf to see first-hand the conditions there. He would write to the Chief of Staff, General of the Army George Marshall, “The things I saw beggar description”.

Forty years later, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, was in the planning stages. Museum leaders approached the Secretary of the Army to ask permission to display the colors of US Army units involved in liberating the camps in the museum building, as well as at the annual Days of Remembrance ceremony. The Army agreed to the project. The Holocaust Memorial Museum and the US Army Center for Military History quickly recognized ten divisions as camp liberators: the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 10th and 11th Armored Divisions and the 42nd, 45th, 80th, 90th and 103rd Infantry Divisions.

45th Infantry Division – The “Thunderbird” Division was first organized in 1924 consisting of National Guard units in the southwest. In 1940, the division was reactivated and in June 1943 deployed to North Africa. On April 29, 1945, the 45th, along with the 42nd and 20th Armored divisions met at the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich. At that time, they discovered more than 30,000 prisoners in the overcrowded camp. 

As awareness of the project grew, more veterans’ associations sought to become involved. Ultimately, the Center for Military History established some additional parameters. Recognitions would remain at the division level, official records of the division’s involvement in liberating the camp needed to be held by the National Archives and Records Administration, and the division needed to arrive at a camp within 48 hours of the first division unit’s detection of a camp’s presence. A division’s specialized units with support missions involving medical care, mess operations, logistics, displaced persons, and public health were often brought in to provide initial support to survivors.  

80th Infantry Division – The “Blue Ridge” Division’s insignia was adopted in 1918 and represents the Blue Ridge Mountains of Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. The 80th Infantry Division would relieve the 6th Armored Division at Buchenwald concentration camp on April 12, 1945. It later turned south into Austria where it liberated Ebensee, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp, on May 6, 1945.

Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus, the museum is currently closed to visitors and 2020’s Days of Remembrance Ceremony is a virtual, online event. But both the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Center of Military History maintain excellent websites with detailed history of the roles these divisions and subordinate units played in liberating the concentration camps. Unit profiles, riveting firsthand accounts, maps, videos and photographs are all available. Bibliographies for additional reading are also included.  

First organized in 1979, the annual Days of Remembrance as observed in the United States is an 8-day period, designated by the United States Congress. It includes various ceremonies and educational programs held nationwide to mark the catastrophic events of the Holocaust and inform current generations.   

This initiative to recognize the US Army units helps us all to remember the liberators as well as the liberated. 

104th Infantry Division – The “Timberwolf” Division was first organized within the Reserves in 1921. It arrived in France in September 1944. The 104th logged almost 200 days of fighting in northwestern Europe, fighting in France, Belgium, and western Germany. It participated in the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge and the encirclement in the Ruhr Pocket. On April 11, 1945, the Timberwolves liberated the Dora-Mittelbau Concentration Camp near Nordhausen in Thuringia, Germany.

Happy 75th Birthday Pentagon!

The Puzzle Palace, Fort Fumble, the Big Spoke, Bat Cave on the Basin, the Concrete Carousel.

The world’s most famous five sided building has many nicknames, but the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense is more simply known as the Pentagon.

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Overhead view of the Pentagon 2008 Photo by David Gleason from Chicago, IL. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

2018 marks the 75th anniversary of this iconic Washington, DC landmark.

In the late 1930’s, as the world edged closer to war, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and War Department leaders knew they needed a new building to house the department’s expanding workforce. At that time, employees were scattered in multiple buildings around the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

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An overhead view of the Main Navy and Munitions Buildings.  Built at the beginning of World War I, these buildings housed a large number of War and Navy Department workers. The buildings were located on the Mall in the vicinity of the current Viet Nam Memorial. The buildings were demolished in 1970. Photo: Histories of the National Mall, accessed 25 January 2018, http://mallhistory.org/items/show/57.

Designing and planning the new building began in earnest in 1940, with two proposed sites selected in Arlington, Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington. The first proposed site was the U.S.Department of Agriculture’s Arlington Experimental Farm. The other was Hoover Field, an early Washington area commercial airport. The Pentagon owes its particular five-sided shape to the irregular layout of the experimental farm location. The unique design of five pentagons nested together connected by radiating hallways allowed planners to maximize the structure’s available work space.

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Pentagon concourse in 1944. In order to save steel, building designers used concrete ramps, rather than elevators, for workers to move floor to floor. Photo: U.S. War Department

Ultimately, the Hoover Field site was selected over the farm location, but the five-sided design was kept. The building was to be made of concrete, to minimize the need for steel, which was needed for war production. Limestone facades over the concrete completed the neoclassical look of the Pentagon we know today.

The final contracts were signed and ground was immediately broken on September 11, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor three months later only added to the urgency to complete the Pentagon’s construction, which took just sixteen months. When construction was completed on January 15, 1943, some War Department workers had already moved in.

The Pentagon was the headquarters for the War Department from 1943 through 1947, when the National Security Act formally established the Department of Defense (DoD). Then the Pentagon became the headquarters for this new department as well as for each of the armed services. As the size, budget and influence of the military grew during the Cold War, the term “the Pentagon” would become synonymous with the DoD and American military bureaucracy, with all of its successes and excesses, strengths and weaknesses, victories and mistakes.

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Members of the general public have been able to tour the Pentagon since 1976, when the tour program was implemented as part of America’s bicentennial. Today Pentagon tours are still available, but they do require some planning ahead.

Tours are by reservation only, which can be made by visiting the Pentagon Tours website. Reservations must be made at least two weeks before the tour date. The DoD is very careful about who is allowed into their headquarters so follow all the instructions on the website carefully.

On the day of the tour, arrive at the Pentagon Visitor Center (near the entrance to the Pentagon Metro Station) with sufficient time to clear an airport style security checkpoint. The Pentagon tours website recommends arriving one hour ahead of time.

After clearing security, there is a waiting area, also used by other Pentagon visitors. The waiting area has a gift shop with the expected collection of hats, key chains, post cards and other trinkets with Pentagon or military service themes. (If something catches your eye, be sure to buy it before the tour begins as you will not pass by the gift shop again). There is also a mockup Pentagon briefing podium and backdrop for taking selfies or group photos, sure to impress friends and family.4 Pentagon Podium

Tours are led by junior enlisted service members. One cannot help but feel a bit of pride in these young men and women, dressed in their class A uniforms with crisp creases and polished brass. Guides are selected from the military services various honor guard units stationed in the area. One guide confided it is a good job to have, working in a climate controlled building with weekends and holidays off. The biggest challenge he said was memorizing all the facts and walking backwards for most of the mile-long tour.

As one of the world’s largest office buildings, the guide had many facts about the Pentagon to share. They are recited effortlessly, with machine gun-like repetition. The Pentagon is five stories tall, with an additional two stories underground and covers 28.7 acres. Today there are over 17 miles of corridors, 54 escalators, 70 elevators, 131 stairways, 284 restrooms, 8,979 parking spaces, 16,250 lighting fixtures and 26,000 employees.

The tour followed the guide up one of the 54 escalators to the Pentagon’s extensive retail area. The original building designers wisely included extensive retail space so workers would not have to leave the building for common necessities. Today the Pentagon’s  workers can visit about 20 fast food restaurants, three banks, a clothing store, drug store, barber shop, hair salon, dry cleaners, jewelers, post office, vision center, even an office of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

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The displays in the ANZUS Corridor, on the Pentagon’s second floor, commemorate the 1951 Security treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

But the tour is more than just facts, figures and shopping. Many Pentagon corridors have special defense-related themes with museum quality displays. However, the tour is only about 60 minutes long. While the tour group keeps moving most of that time, the size of the building makes it impossible to see every special exhibit in that amount of time. The tour planners though selected a route that allows the guides to broadly focus on the missions of the U.S. Armed Forces and their storied pasts.

The center piece of the Air Force displays is a series of scale models of Air Force aircraft, past and present. After the guide discussed the size of the C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft, the capabilities of the F-22 Raptor fighter and the stealthiness of the B-2 Spirit bomber, he pointed out his favorite aircraft, the Waco CG-4A Combat Glider.

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A Waco CG-4A-GN (45-27948) Combat Glider on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force  Photo: U.S. Air Force

The guide explained how the gliders saw service during World War II. The light bodied aircraft earned the nickname “the Flying Coffin” due to their precarious mission of flying unarmed while carrying troops and equipment deep behind enemy lines as a precursor to invasions and large advances. Gliders and their crews served with distinction in Sicily, Burma, Normandy, Southern France and Bastogne among other places.

Somewhat surprisingly, the tour next passed the displays of the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is a component of the Department of Homeland Security, not the DoD. But at several times through its history, especially during wartime, the Coast Guard has served as part of the Navy. The displays trace the Coast Guard’s history from its forerunners first establishment in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service. Naval aviation followed the Coast Guard, then a corridor dedicated to Dwight D. Eisenhower represented the Army.

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Inside the Pentagon’s interior 9/11 Memorial. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

The one stop the tour does make is at Pentagon’s interior 9/11 Memorial. The memorial is located on the first floor of the outer ring, in the area struck by American Airlines Flight 77. The walls of the memorial feature a textured metallic finish with black stone tablets recognizing the sacrifices made that day, commemorating the names of those who died and detailing the medals awarded to the military and civilian casualties. Adjoining the memorial is the Pentagon Memorial Chapel, which opened in 2002.

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The Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom was established after the 9/11 attacks for civilian employees of the DoD killed or wounded in the line of duty.

The corridor leading to the memorial and chapel has one of the Pentagon’s most unique displays, the Pentagon Memorial Quilts. In the months and years after the attack, individuals and groups from across the United States (and some foreign countries as well) sewed then donated quilts to the Pentagon to mark the tragedy and aid in recovery. The quilts reflect a variety of themes but most reflect patriotism, loss, memorializing the fallen, gratitude for the responders and support for the military. There are about 120 quilts in the collection. Around fifty are displayed at the Pentagon with others rotated and loaned for display in communities and military facilities around the world.

Because of the security precautions, visiting the Pentagon takes a special effort, but it is well worth it. The Pentagon’s size, shape and mission certainly make it a unique location to visit. But walking its hallways, hearing its history, seeing its occupants walk briskly about, and seeing the exhibits remind us all of what it takes to serve.

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Route Recon

The best way to reach the Pentagon is by taking the Metro Rail system. There is a Metro station at the Pentagon, served by the Blue and Yellow lines.  As you exit the metro gates, make a left and proceed up the escalator. The Pentagon Visitors’ Center will be on your right.

There is NO public parking at the Pentagon. If traveling by car, park in the parking garage at the Pentagon City Mall. The Pentagon is about a 10-minute walk away. After exiting the parking garage or mall, cross Army-Navy drive and take a pedestrian tunnel  over to the Pentagon. When you exit the tunnel, follow signs for the Metro, which will lead you to the Pentagon Visitor’s Center. Visit the Pentagon Tours website for more information.

Mess Call

There is no eating during the Pentagon tour and unless you have an escort, you will not be able to visit any of the Pentagon’s eating establishments. The nearby Pentagon City Mall and neighborhood have a wide variety of dining options

75 Years After Pearl Harbor, the Taney Still Serves

What better way to observe the 75th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor than to visit the last U.S. ship afloat which saw action on that fateful December morning.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney is moored about 40 miles north of Washington, D.C. The Taney is part of the Historic Ships in Baltimore, a floating museum of notable ships from our nation’s naval and maritime heritage.

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U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney (WHEC-37)

The Taney (pronounced TAW-ney) was one of seven Coast Guard vessels in the Treasury class of High Endurance Cutters. The Treasury Class would be known for their ability to perform many different types of missions and their many years of service to the Coast Guard. The Taney was built in Philadelphia and launched in 1936. She was assigned to Honolulu from 1936 through 1941 where she undertook missions familiar to today’s Coast Guard: law enforcement, maritime patrols, and search and rescue, among others.

pearl-harbor-poster_travel-objective-dcOn the morning of December 7, 1941, the Taney was moored in Honolulu Harbor, about eight miles away from Pearl Harbor. While not directly attacked that day, she did engage Japanese aircraft in her vicinity.

In the war’s early years, the Taney stayed in the Pacific, conducting maritime patrols, pilot rescues, and counter-submarine operations.

From 1943-1944, the Taney served in the Atlantic theater, performing convoy escort duty between the U.S. and Europe, and engaging German planes in the Mediterranean. In late 1944 the Taney was converted to an Amphibious Command Ship and returned to the Pacific. She was Rear Admiral Calvin Cobb’s flagship at the battle of Okinawa where her crew served with great distinction defending her from more than 250 attacks by Japanese aircraft.

After the war, the Taney returned to peacetime missions: reporting weather conditions, conducting search and rescue missions, and supporting law enforcement operations. From 1946-1972, the Taney was based at Alameda, California.

img_5794The Taney also participated in the Viet Nam War. From 1969-1970, she patrolled the waters off Viet Nam, supporting naval bombardments, preventing enemy resupply operations and providing medical assistance to South Vietnamese nationals.

In 1972, she was transferred to the east coast, continuing her peacetime missions, as well as serving as a training ship for Coast Guard cadets and officer candidates.

The Taney was decommissioned in 1986 and transferred to the City of Baltimore as a museum ship.

After 50 years of service to the Coast Guard, the Taney certainly lived up to her designation as a “High Endurance” cutter.

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Today the Taney is found on Pier 5 of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Climb aboard, walk the decks, explore the berths and you get a sense of the rhythm of mid-20th century “Coastie” life.

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A blue line with arrows painted on the deck guides you through the living quarters, dining areas and work spaces. Placards and actual shipboard notices to the crew, dating from the 1980’s, explain how crewmembers spent their days moving between duty, meals, hygiene and sleep with long hours of routine punctuated by brief periods of white knuckle danger, recreational diversions or just a few peaceful moments to observe a Pacific sunset.

Available space is tight on the 327-foot-long cutter, so privacy was clearly a luxury reserved for the Taney’s senior officers, especially when the size of the crew doubled to over 250 personnel during World War II. There are also special exhibits devoted to the attack at Pearl Harbor and the Taney’s service in Viet Nam.

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img_5785Younger visitors can learn about the Taney’s Mascot “Soogie”, a dog who sailed on board from 1937 until 1948.

Paw prints on the floor direct kids to information kiosks with details about this Coastie canine and his life at sea.

In recognition of her service at Pearl Harbor, each year on December 7 at 12:00 noon, the Historic Ships in Baltimore hosts a memorial ceremony on board the Taney. The event is free and open to the public.

But any season is a good time of year to visit the Taney and learn her stories. A few hours on board and you can’t help but develop a healthy respect for the ship and the crew members who sailed her through a half century of service to the United States.

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