With Huge Collection, Natick Museum Preserves The Reality Of WWII
Natick, Mass. — On this day 70 years ago, people huddled around their radios to hear radio broadcasts like this one on the BBC:
Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.
The invasion of Normandy signaled the end of World War II. Right now, a special exhibition about D-Day is on display at an under-the-radar archive in Natick called the Museum Of World War II. It houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of documents and artifacts about the war.
From outside, the museum is nondescript, almost bunker-like. There’s no sign, but American flags — and this week a French one — flank the entrance.
Inside there are metal detectors to make sure visitors who come here, by appointment only, don’t lift items from the massive collection assembled by Kenneth Rendell.
Rendell, the museum’s owner, shows me D-Day plans, maps, communications and photos of the landings by Allied forces. He was born during World War II and owns more than 500,000 archival items and objects. He says he started collecting about 60 years ago.
“And my first WWII artifacts were what every kid in the 1940s had: canteens and camping equipment,” he recalls. “Everything was available for almost no money at the local war surplus store.”
In the years after the second world war, Rendell says people weren’t all that interested in battle maps, propaganda posters and documentation. He says it seemed like everyone just wanted to forget.
“But it was clearly the defining event of the 20th century,” Rendell says. “So I started acquiring the archives. I often describe it that for 30 years, I was the eccentric. People would ask me why was I collecting all this stuff. And then for the next 15 years it’s been, ‘My God, how did you ever do it?’”
So Rendell says he went from eccentric to prophet.
In his brochure, Rendell calls the museum “a sacred mission to save the reality of those who saved the world.” His goal from the beginning was, and still is, education. And the lifelong historian, who’s written several books, says his collection is as vast as it is because this particular war was far better documented than previous conflicts.
“Because of photography, because of radio,” he explains, “you had masters of oratory, like Churchill.”
You can listen to Winston Churchill’s poetic broadcast in the museum, where he says, “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. But let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead…”
Passionate speeches by Franklin Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler also play through speakers throughout the rooms. Rendell curated each display, and chose to tell the war’s story chronologically, beginning in Germany before World War I. Context is everything, according to Rendell.
The rise of the Third Reich section is both horrifying and fascinating. There’s an image of Hitler on a horse wearing shining armor.
There’s all manner of Nazi propaganda. There are mannequins wearing Hitler youth uniforms. A table is covered with games and toys designed to promote the future of German dominance.
“This is the contents of Hitler’s artist studio,” Rendell shows me. “These are his paints, his paintbrushes. I like jarring things like this. To me, this was invaluable. They could be anyone’s watercolors.”
A few feet away, in a case behind glass, there are work passes with pictures of German soldiers.
“He looks like a guy who will double-cross you,” Rendell says pointing at one passport-sized picture. About the next one he says, “This is the guy who will stab you straight on. This other guy looks like a poor scared kid who was drafted into the army from Eastern Europe.”
Rendell wants to get the point across that war is personal, for every citizen and soldier. All of the countries involved are considered: Germany, Russia, France, England, the U.S.
“War is not remote,” the collector muses. “What we have going on in Afghanistan is not remote. Those are real people over there. And I give a real sense here by having ordinary objects that people — particularly students — can identify with.”
His collection includes a huge range of seemingly ordinary things: letters, photographs, gun shells, military-issued cigarettes and condoms. You can also view artifacts donated by General George Patton’s estate.
Rendell is particularly interested in what it was like for the American soldiers in World War II. He recalls an iconic picture taken from a landing craft. It captures the scene the young men entered as they were deployed onto the smoke-filled Normandy beach.
“That photograph terrified me as a kid,” Rendell says. “I could not imagine what it could be like to have to get out of the landing craft into that withering machine gunfire. If you weren’t blown up on the way in! So many boats were hit by big artillery fire.”
In 1994, Rendell bought the Omaha Beach Museum’s entire collection. He says the owner of it didn’t think people would continue to be interested after the 50th anniversary. French soldiers’ uniforms and helmets are on display for the 70th anniversary of D-Day alongside American parachutes and gear.
“I want you to see what was in Morley Piper’s backpack,” Rendell says. “How did he live? What did he carry ashore? What did every soldier carry ashore when they landed on D-Day?”
Morley Piper is a man who enlisted in the U.S. military when he was 18. He and I spoke before he left for Normandy to commemorate the invasion’s 70th anniversary. Piper, now a resident of Essex, says he has spent hours sifting through maps and battle plans in the Museum of World War II. And he’s not alone.
“It means a lot to the old guys of WWII,” he told me, “because it preserves their memories and helps us keep a bond. It’s a wonderful place to us.”
Piper is one of the many veterans Rendell invites to the museum to share their personal stories. Sitting in his Beverly office, he recalled the infamous day 70 years ago.
“It was supposed to have been the day before, June 5, but the weather was bad so we sat out in the harbor for two nights before we went over,” he says, before recounting his harrowing experience.
Rendell knows what Piper went through well, and tells the veteran’s story, almost as if he was there, too.
“Morley Piper lands on Omaha beach, all the bunkers are operating,” he says. “Virtually nothing has been destroyed. “
Piper remembers each moment vividly. “I don’t know what to say. I could see battleships and destroyers as far as you could see, and they were shelling the shore.”
Rendell explains how Piper fought for 11 straight months into Germany. “He described how every night he slept in a shellhole or a burned-out building. And every night he shook and cried at what he had had to do that day, and that he had to get up the next day and do it all over again.” Then the collector adds, “That’s the reality.”
At 89 years old, Piper believes it’s inevitable that World War II will fade from the collective memory, just as he believes WWI has. But Rendell will keep fighting that. He has plans to expand his museum and educational nonprofit to accommodate more students — and, while he can — more veterans.
Earlier: Ken Rendell, director of the Museum of World War II in Natick, describes his passion for collecting WWII memorabilia: