Personal and Public Perspectives of American Wartime
In times of war or military strife, the experiences of individual soldiers are often eclipsed by the civilian population’s understanding of the conflict. Influenced by media, politics, and propaganda, the public experience of a war is far removed from that of the individuals fighting it.
Soldiers and veterans find ways to understand, cope, and connect with others over their experiences. Sometimes they choose to share those experiences – in letters, diaries, memoirs, photographs, or recordings.
This exhibit features materials from Grand Valley State University Libraries’ Special Collections & University Archives that illustrate both the public perception and personal experiences of war. Special Collections & University Archives is actively collecting the stories of veterans – to remember, to honor, and to learn from their service and their sacrifice – through their unique collections of documents, photographs, media, and digital objects. The objects and memories presented in this exhibit are only a small portion of the resources available for research use.
John Bennitt was born on March 24, 1830 in Pulteney, New York. He received an M.D. from Cleveland Medical College in 1850 and entered medical practice in Centreville, Michigan in March of the same year. During the Civil War he served as an assistant surgeon in the 19th Michigan Volunteer Infantry. He and part of his regiment were captured in March of 1863, but were released and he continued his service until the end of the war. During the war he compiled three diaries and wrote over 200 letters to his family detailing his experiences in the army.
In letters to his wife:
Camp Chase, May 24th 1863
“I cannot claim any particular merit in that I am trying to do my duty to my country, and to those who go forth risking their lives for their country’s sake, yet I feel that those who remain at home, and have no near & dear friends in this terrible war, know nothing of the sacrifices that are made for our common country. People of the North in the midst of their unparalleled prosperity at home almost forget that there is a war, and it is only those who are made to feel it in the absence and loss of dear ones & the desolations of homes.”
McMinnville, Tenn. April 7th 1864
“I do so much wish I could be at home now, for I feel that a great responsibility rests on us which I would be glad to share with you. But my Country not only calls, but demands my services now, and I am unworthy of a heritage in this goodly land, if I shrink from doing my whole duty, but the time is not far distant I hope when that duty in the present capacity will cease and I can return to peaceful avocations and Live with those I love. Let us live in hope trusting in Him who orders all things for good.”
Mailing envelopes with patriotic imagery or emblems printed on them appeared at the outset of the Civil War soon after South Carolina’s secession from the Union in December of 1860. Production of the envelopes in the South ceased after 1863, but continued in the North until the end of the war. The envelopes were created to encourage patriotism and allowed printers to add new product lines to their inventory. Early in the war some Northern printers produced envelopes for the South as well. Vendors marketed them to soldiers to send letters home from the battlefields, but most envelopes used in mailing letters were sent to soldiers from their families in the North. The envelopes were most often purchased as keepsakes, kept in scrapbooks, and were never mailed.
Opposition to President Lincoln
Though President Abraham Lincoln is one of the most commemorated presidents in American History today, he was an extremely controversial figure during his time in office. Opposition and hostility toward Lincoln came not only from the people of the Confederacy and many in the southern border states, but also from his political opponents in the Democratic party in the North, and even elements within his own Republican Party. The ballad “Nobody Hurt” was composed by John Ross Dix, a Unionist and native of Bristol, England, in response to a speech Lincoln gave shortly after he was elected. During the speech, Lincoln implied that no one would be hurt during his first term as president and that people would have an opportunity to vote for another candidate in four years. The ballad shows how public criticism of President Lincoln was not limited to the Confederacy, and that even small statements had a large impact on public opinion.
Archibald Irvine McColl (1893-1981)
Irvine McColl was a resident of Grand Rapids and attended the University of Michigan, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 1917. McColl enlisted in the Army later that year and was a Sergeant in Battery C in the 119th Field Artillery from 1917 – 1919.
Though we have no photographs of McColl, we have many of the letters he wrote to his family. The photographs presented here are from the D.J. Angus photograph and film collection.
From the letters of Irvine McColl:
January 31, 1919
“I wonder a lot what it will be like to be back again, and to be a chooser to some extent of what I can and cannot do and the men I will be with, and to actually be on speaking terms with English talking women, and to have a bath more than once a fortnight, and to eat real meals and not to have to mess as we do when we eat. I’m afraid I’ll seem a bit rough, at first at least, and a bit wild, for dispite [sic] our continual lament about nothing to do there is something going on, a fight or a fire or a wild party of some kind or other … And to come back to chocolate and sodas and canned excitement and adventures will seem tame, perhaps, but I am certainly ready to try the civilized ways again.
Mother and Aunt Hattie … both seem to think I am somehow different than I used to be, but I am afraid I’ll disappoint them, for really, Al, I am only what I am, and can’t borrow much from the thing we have been over here for. It is only the fellows who were popped off that are the real heroes of the war. Their memory is as glorious as the immortal soul of the United States, but the rest of us are only poor weak mortals after all.”
Posters to Sell the War
During World War I, the U.S. Government recruited advertisers, designers, and illustrators to communicate key messages about the war to the American public. Propaganda posters such as these were created to encourage citizens to join the military and help the U.S. defend its European allies. Posted along the street and in store windows, they were used to inspire patriotism and nationalism and to dehumanize the enemy. Their bright colors and intense graphics made them eye‐catching and easily noticeable.
“I Want You…”
This World War I poster was designed in 1917 by James Montgomery Flagg, who contributed 46 posters to the government. Originally published on the cover of Leslie’s Weekly, the portrait of “Uncle Sam” went on to become one of the most famous posters in the world. Over four million copies were printed between 1917 and 1918. Due to its overwhelming popularity, the image was later adapted for use during World War II. This is perhaps one of the most recognizable images of this era, and has become an icon of American patriotism.
“Destroy This Mad Brute”
During World War I, German soldiers were often depicted as apes in American propaganda. This poster posed American allies England and France as “civilization” and Germany as a ”mad brute.” In this poster, the ape is holding Lady Liberty, symbolizing the perceived peril to the American values of liberty and democracy. In the background you can see Europe in ruins as the ape steps onto American shores. Due to propaganda like this, many German Americans whose families may have lived in America for centuries faced persecution during the war.
Joseph P. Olexa (1918-2000)
Joe Olexa enlisted in the Army on December 9, 1940 and fought in the 26th Infantry Division, Company “L”. During his time in the Army, Olexa was stationed in Northern Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium, and Germany, fighting in some of the most remembered battles of World War II, including the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. While stationed in America and overseas Olexa sparked a romance with Agnes Van Der Weide, a young woman in Grand Rapids. They kept in constant contact while he was overseas fighting and the couple married on July 23, 1945, and settled in the Grand Rapids area.
Though we have no photographs of Olexa, we have hundreds of his letters to Agnes as well as his personal memoir, written after the war. The photographs below come from the World War II collections of James W. Ochs, F.W. Beasecker, and Otto Kuxhaus.
Dedication in the memoir “As I Remember,” by Joseph Olexa
“To all who served in the Armed Forces giving their lives, limbs and unselfish devotion to their country to achieve victory in a struggle to fight tyranny and oppression and be free from men who seek power and conquest the world over.”
Olexa recalls reaching Omaha Beach, Normandy
“Three Hundred yards from shore our L.C.I. hit two underwater mines making the launch sink enough so it would not clear the sand bar. We jumped into the water from the front side like rats escaping a fiery doom. The water here was deep as we sank into its murky depths from the weight of our equipment. What seemed like ages I finally hit bottom with my feet springing enough to send me back towards the top. My lungs were now crying for air as I used my arms in powerful strokes to surface. The extra 77 pounds of equipment I carried slowed me down.”
On the Home Front
While American soldiers braved the European and Pacific Theaters of World War II, the American way of life was drastically altered at home. Science and technology saw a flurry of innovation. Radar, plastics, electronics, and of course, nuclear weapons, saw huge advancements during this period. Once male-dominated areas of industry, science, and business saw an influx of women workers. Women found employment as engineers, welders, manufacturers, and electricians to help build the armaments to defend U.S. troops. The lack of men pursuing traditional leisure-time activities, such as baseball, created avenues for women to compete in public like never before.
Esterline-Angus Graphic Instrument
The Esterline-Angus Company, partly owned by D.J. Angus, was an early pioneer in engineering and manufacturing of electrical instruments. Angus invented a number of continuous-recording instruments and filled orders for the U.S. government and military during World War II. One such invention was the Recording Milliammeter, used by the research team of the Manhattan Project. In Chicago, Illinois on December 2, 1942 one of these devices was used to measure the first sustained, controlled nuclear reaction.
Women Take The Field
With the draft calling many of the country’s baseball players away to war, Philip K. Wrigley decided to create a women’s professional baseball league. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League began in the spring of 1943 and entertained thousands throughout the Midwest before disbanding in 1954. As the first professional women’s baseball league on record, these women brought communities together and helped keep spirits high on the home front.
Heroes Under Cover: the Flying Tigers
The American Volunteer Group (AVG) was a small force of American aviators and mechanics led by Colonel Claire L. Chennault to aid United States’ ally China in its defense against deadly Japanese air raids and bombings. Many of the group’s members traveled to China in an undercover mission, their passports identifying them as farmers or mechanics so they could travel without hassle. Several of the pilots painted the noses of their P-40 fighter planes with shark mouths. Their Chinese allies, mistaking the shark teeth for a tiger’s intimidating scowl, began to refer to the pilots as Fei Hu, or “Flying Tigers.” After the United States officially entered the Pacific Theater of the war due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the AVG disbanded, many of its pilots returning to their service in the United States Army Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. News reels about the Flying Tigers’ success in China were played in cinemas in the U.S. to bolster support for the war effort and boost morale on the home front.
Michael Woods was born in Natchez, Mississippi and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He enlisted in the Marines at the age of 17. After basic training he was sent to Camp Pendleton, and stationed in Okinawa in January of 1963. Sent to Vietnam with one of the first Marine units assigned there, Woods participated in a number of combat actions of varying size. After his tour in Vietnam was over, he stayed in the Marines until 1979, but did not return to Vietnam.
We have no photographs of Woods, but his interview can be found in the Veterans History Project digital collection. These images are from the digital collection of Ronald Oakes.
From the interview of Michael Woods:
“The system in the military although stressful and demanding was the fairest system I had been exposed to at the time…You’re looking for, ‘Where can my ability take me? Just based on my personal ability, nothing else.’…The military itself is one of those places that operates under that principle.”
“The experience of leaving this training and going back to be with your buddies [back home, after training] is amazing. You find you don’t have anything in common with them anymore. You find that the things that they are doing seems childish and not grown up. So you lose that connection that you have had with these friends…and you start seeing yourself differently, maybe a cut above…”
“Every serviceman that came back experienced the hatred that many Americans showed them. For the black serviceman it was a little different…There is a civil rights movement here, and there are dogs being put on black people, and there are [fire] hoses being put on black people. Your fight is here on the streets of America, not in Vietnam. You are fighting for the Vietnamese to get rights when you don’t have those same rights here at home… Your own community had ostracized you…It wasn’t an easy time for black military people.”
During Vietnam about one-quarter of American troops were drafted into military service, most of whom were selected from poor or working class families. Men with physical limitations, college students, or men who were essential to financially supporting their families could apply for deferments. Many draft age men fled to Canada to avoid the military service. By 1972 over 200,000 draftees who protested their selection were involved in legal cases. Those who fled faced imprisonment or forced military service. In 1974, President Gerald Ford offered conditional amnesty to these men. On his first day in office in 1977, President Jimmy Carter offered a full pardon to all who requested it.
Protests at Home
The conflict in Vietnam and the mandatory draft of young men into military service polarized American political discourse. Public protests, both in favor of and against the war, became a frequent occurrence. Many students here at Grand Valley had strong feelings about the Vietnam war. Protesters had sit-ins, chanted slogans, and held signs that voiced their divided opinions: “Stay in Vietnam to keep Freedom” and “Support LBJ kill a friend today.”
These propaganda posters depict the Communist Party of Vietnam’s efforts to gain support for the war from their own population. Using bright, eye-catching colors and strong language, they sought to inspire nationalism and support for the communist regime. The language on these posters translates to phrases such as “Assault and defeat our enemies,” “Uncle Ho says victory, it means victory,” and “All armies fight to win.”
Capturing Veterans’ Voices
GVSU and the Special Collections & University Archives are dedicated to preserving the history of veterans. Currently the Special Collections hold very little documentation of the Korean War or the wars and conflicts following Vietnam. Aside from oral history recordings collected by the GVSU Veterans History Project, Special Collections collects photographs, letters, journals and diaries, small artifacts, and other documents and memorabilia from veterans. With the help of our community, we can preserve these unique resources for future generations to discover and explore. Please contact Special Collections & University Archives at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
This exhibit was curated by Special Collections & University Archives, Greg Bevier ’16, and Helen Kurtz ’16. Title and heading images were designed by Jeremy Shane ’17.