Last week My Own True Love and I made the long drive to outer suburbia to see a special exhibit at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park: Faces of the 1st. It was well worth the trip.
Several years ago we happily spent a rainy Memorial Day at the First Division Museum and were fascinated.* The museum does an excellent job of placing the Army’s First Division** in historical context–from the division’s creation in World War One through the current conflicts.
Faces of the First takes the museum’s basic mission and gives it a twist by tightening the focus from the division as a whole to the individual soldier. The exhibits tagline says it all: 17 Soldiers, 7 Conflicts, 1 Division. According to exhibit designer Jaron Kenner, “The point of the exhibit is to put a face to war. Visitors look at personal stories and can identify with them.” Using photographs and artifacts from the collections of the soldiers they profile, the museum tells the stories of a diverse group of soldiers. Chaplain, doghandler, nurse, and artilleryman. Boys barely out of high school and men who thought they were too old to be drafted. A professional boxer and a professional drummer as well as career soldiers.***
Some of the stories that gripped my imagination include:
• Marlin Burns’ Army and Navy Service Record from WWI which was essentially a baby book detailing a soldier’s career. Burns’ record included charming sketches that brought his experience to life.
• WWII infantryman and professional drummer Fred Randall who served in the occupation of Germany. His commanding officer asked him to create a nightclub for soldiers stationed in Wurtzberg
• Methodist minister Wes Geary, who enlisted as a chaplain in the Vietnam War at the request of his bishop because the Army Chaplin Corps needed college educated black men. Since he wasn’t allowed to carry a weapon, he made himself a slingshot.
Faces of the First successfully put a face on war: seventeen of them in fact. The exhibit runs through September 2. If you’re in the area, make the time for a visit. If you’re not in the area, check out the exhibit website .
* The re-creation of World War I trenches was particularly memorable. We’ve seen many versions of this since then, but few are as well done.
** Aka The Big Red One
*** High-ranking officers are the only group not represented: a conscious choice on the part of the museum curators. As Kenner pointed out, war is fought by the everyday soldier.