By Barbara Wilson
June 6, 1944 was the beginning of what then Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “Great Crusade.” In 2019, the United States and its Allies worldwide will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Allied Invasion at Normandy, France.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Allied Invasion, the Illinois State Military Museum, and guest curator Illinois Army National Guard Maj. Michael Hart of Springfield, Illinois, will open the D-Day 75th Anniversary exhibit on June 6. The exhibit will run through Dec. 31.
Hart, commissioned with the Illinois Army National Guard in 2007 through the Reserve Officers Training Corps program at Western Illinois University, has been an avid military artifacts collector since the late 1990s – with most of the D-Day artifacts on display coming from his personal collection.
“We’ve been talking about doing a display for more than a year,” said Bill Lear, Museum Curator. “With 2019 being the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we wanted to tell the story of honor, service and sacrifice of the American Soldier.”
Included in the display will be the same uniform and equipment Soldiers carried throughout the war, along with personal items, such as paper, candy, and decks of playing cards. Most of the artifacts on display are from Hart’s personal collection, which he picked up at garage sales, online sales, shows and from other people selling parts of their own collection.
“World War II was the pre-cell phone era,” Hart said. “So besides carrying equipment, Soldiers carried letters and other personal items in whatever space they could cram items into.”
Although Hart has been in the Illinois National Guard since 2007, and serves in the Army Guard operations office at Joint Forces Headquarters, Springfield, military service runs deep in his family. Both of his grandfathers served in World War II - one as an Army machine gunner who served on Okinawa and the other who served in the Navy before changing to the Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
“This collection gives me a personal connection to my grandfathers,” Hart said. “I hope these artifacts grabs someone’s curiosity, draws them in and sparks a personal interest in learning more about the service and sacrifice of service members during D-Day and beyond.”
Planning a major display of artifacts such as this takes much planning and execution, according to Lear.
“We’ve been talking and planning the display for a year now,” he said. “We talk about what we want to convey in the exhibit and then select the space. Then we put together a mock up to determine what artifacts will be displayed.”
Lear said that Hart took the display area measurements and marked off the size off-site, so he could determine which artifacts would best fit the area.
“It’s like putting a story board together,” Hart said. “It’s a process that doesn’t just happen overnight.”
Lear said he hopes the items chosen for the exhibit will grab the curiosity of those who visit. “This exhibit tells a story,” said Lear. “Major Hart has a wonderful collection. I’ve learned more about World War II and D-Day and as guest curator, he’s learning about putting on an exhibit.”
According to Hart, of those killed in action on June 6, 1944, 23 were Illinoisans. According to the World War II casualty lists available through the National Archives, 22,000 Illinoisans died during World War II.
“While none of the deceased on June 6, 1944 were Illinois National Guardsmen, we were there as a state,” he said. “We need to honor and preserve their memory.”
According to Adriana Schroeder, Illinois National Guard Command Historian, the Illinois National Guard has a rich history of service in World War II, dating back to just weeks before the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Although no Illinois National Guardsmen landed at Normandy during the initial invasion, Soldiers from the Illinois Army National Guard’s 106th Cavalry Regiment came ashore there on July 2, 1944.
“It is important to tell these stories,” Lear said. “In our lifetime, the living memory of World War II will be gone. Putting together this exhibit for the 75th anniversary of D-Day was well thought out.”
Col. Venard Wilson, 106th Cavalry Commanding Officer, wrote a May 30, 1945 letter reviewing the 106th Cavalry Regiment’s accomplishments. The unit shipped overseas with approximately 1,500 Soldiers.
“We are rather small as a major combat unit, but our Regiment has carried its full share of the action from Normandy to Austria,” Wilson wrote. “We landed in Normandy on July 2, 1944 and learned combat in the famous ‘hedge-rows’ fighting there.”
Wilson wrote the unit “covered the Third Army’s right flank – some 115 miles - when they paused for supplies” and led the 15th Corps from the vicinity of Neufchateau to Charmes.
“That, from a tactical standpoint, was one of the most interesting and successful of our accomplishments,” Wilson continued. “An entire German Division, the 16th Infantry, was in front of us. We used five of our six troops to contain these Germans, and slipped around to their north, delivering our infantry on their objective.”
“I feel pride in this regiment,” he said in the letter. “These exploits of ours were not without cost. You cannot whip the enemy unless you take your share of the losses. To our 1,500 men, there have been 701 Purple Hearts issued, and 215 of those will never again go into combat. We owe a certain debt to these dead.”
After slogging through the battlefields of Europe for 11 months, the 106th was savoring the impending German surrender. Yet one last mission lay ahead for the soldiers of the 106th – rescuing Belgium’s King Leopold III from the hands of the Nazis.
The story of the rescue, was retold by Lt. Col. Raymond Pierlot, assistant military attaché for the Belgian embassy in Washington, and Lt. Bob Moore of the 106th to veterans attending the 106th’s 50th reunion in 1999.
“One day in early May 1945, sipping wine at a café in St. Gilgen, Austria, they saw a ‘princely looking’ man bicycle up to the hotel,” Pierlot said. “He introduced himself as an Austrian prince and asked the Americans to help straighten out the mayor of a nearby town who was hoarding food supplies for Germans and denying the Austrians.”
According to the published account, the 106th Soldiers devised a plan which involved using a tank to convince the town’s mayor to leave.
“The grateful prince invited the men to his home where they heard the story of King Leopold III and his wife, Princess Lilian being spotted in the back seat of a German staff car headed to a nearby mountain chalet,” Pierlot said. “The men, using a hand drawn map, drove to the chalet and approached the gate. The German guards thinking it was a German staff car, let the Americans pass. The 17 Germans guarding the king put up no resistance. The danger was real though.”
The 106th received campaign credit for Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland and Central Europe.
Military service in the Pacific Theater saw the 33rd Tank Company, 33rd Infantry Division, from Maywood, Illinois, designated as Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion and activated for federal service on Nov. 25, 1940.
“They were already serving in the Philippines when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941,” said Adriana Schroeder, Illinois National Guard Command Historian. “The unit was sent overseas and arrived in Manila, Luzon, Philippines on Nov. 20, 1941. Of the 89 Soldiers sent overseas from the Maywood unit, only 43 would return home after the war.”
The unit participated in the first tank battle of U.S. forces in the Philippines and held out until May 1942 when they surrendered, according to Lear.
Also serving in the Pacific Theater, from Jan. 23, 1942 to June 30, 1943, the 132nd Infantry and other company level elements of the Illinois National Guard became part of the Americal Division, a hodge-podge of units from all over the U.S. that made up Task Force 6814. The mission was the island defense of New Caledonia from the Japanese to protect the Australian supply line to the rest of the allied forces. To prepare, the men spent a week in Australia where they billeted in the private homes of Australian Soldiers who showered them with appreciation.
The French Island had not been supplied in two years, civilian morale was very low. Starting from scratch the unit had to set up supply lines, create maps and establish a vehicle pool. After the Americal division was relieved, the 132nd fought on Guadalcanal.
The 33rd Infantry Division was activated into federal service March 5, 1941 at Chicago, undergoing training at locations in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Washington, and California. The Soldiers departed for overseas service from San Francisco July 7, 1943. The unit arrived in Hawaii July 12, 1943 and was assigned to defend the outer island July 18, along with jungle warfare training. The unit then departed Hawaii for New Guinea in May, 1944 and engaged in jungle and amphibious training.
The 33rd landed on Luzon in early February 1945, relieving the 43rd Infantry Division in the Darmortis-Rosario-Pozorrubio area. Days later, the division began its drive into the Caraballo Mountains toward its objective of Baguio, the summer capital and second largest city in the Philippines and the Japanese headquarters.
According to the history of the 33rd at Baguio and Luzon, Philippines in World War II, the Illinois Soldiers faced two enemies, the well-equipped Japanese force and the mountainous terrain. Bulldozers of the 108th Engineers carved trails through the mountainous country to pave the way for the advancing infantry.
Beginning a few feet above sea level, the Illinoisans fought and climbed over rocky ledges and towering peaks 5,000 feet high. The heat and limited supply of water led to many Soldiers suffering from heat exhaustion.
The three Infantry Regiments of the division opened a three prong attack against the Japanese. The 136th maintained pressure as it advanced along Kennon Road. The 123rd patrolled northeast of Pugo. Elements of the 130th joined a division task force and linked up with Filipino guerrillas of northern Luzon, but the Japanese had already withdrawn.
The unit’s major accomplishments included liberating thousands of citizens in Northern Luzon and Baguio, New Guinea Battle Streamer, Luzon Battle Streamer, and three Medals of Honor – Pfc. Dexter J. Kerstetter, Company C, 130th Infantry, 33rd Division, near Galiano, Luzon, Philippine Islands on April 13, 1945; Sgt. (then Pvt.) John R. McKinney, Company A, 123rd Infantry, 33rd Division, Tayabas Province, Philippine Islands on May 11, 1945; and Staff Sgt. Howard E. Woodford, Company I, 130th Infantry, 33rd Division, near Tabio, Luzon, Philippine Islands on June 6, 1945. Woodford was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
The D-Day exhibit is the centerpiece of the commemoration, however the Illinois State Military Museum also has other World War II exhibits in place. The Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and is at 1301 N. MacArthur Blvd, Springfield, Ill., 62702, two blocks north of the intersection of MacArthur Blvd. and North Grand Ave.