War stories told in letters, photos from the front

Artifacts from and tributes to area soldiers who served in World War II highlight Port Washington Historical Society exhibits to open in time for Memorial Day

SEVERAL LARGE SIGNBOARDS at the Port Washington Historical Society’s Resource Center tell the stories of notable area men who died in World War II, including 2nd Lt. Robert Schanen, the first local man who died in the war. Geri Zehren (above), co-manager of the center and one of the organizers of the World War II exhibits at the center and Exploreum, talked about the exhibits Tuesday. Photos by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

A basket of letters written from Leland “Jim” Allen to his family. A series of war-front photographs taken by Vernon Biever, long before he gained fame as the Green Bay Packers’ official photographer. A Blue Star flag and a series of posters urging people to buy war bonds, watch what they say and support the troops.

And “A Salute to the Fallen,” a board with the names, ranks and basic information about the 32 men from Port Washington who lost their lives in the war.

These displays and artifacts from World War II are among those on display this summer at the Port Exploreum and Port Washington Historical Society’s Resource Center.

The exhibit at the Exploreum opens this Friday, May 27, just in time for Memorial Day, and runs through Labor Day. At the Resource Center, the exhibit opens in early June and runs into next year.

A grand opening of the exhibits is planned for June 11.

The exhibit serves not only to remember those who served and died in war, it’s also a reminder of one simple fact, Geri Zehren, co-manager of the Resource Center and one of the forces behind the exhibits, said.

“It’s a good reminder that nothing’s for certain,” she said, a valuable lesson especially given the situation in the world today.

The exhibits, she said, are also important because many young people don’t realize the impact that World War II had on the country since many veterans of the war have died.

“World War II extended across every level of society,” Historical Society Executive Director Dawn St. George said.  “Men and women volunteered to serve. There were victory gardens, rationing that affected people back home.”

The exhibits at the two facilities include not only artifacts that the Historical Society has on hand but also many that were donated by families.

“People have been very generous,” Jackie Oleson, co-manager of the Resource Center and one of the forces behind the exhibits, said.

The exhibits have decidedly different feelings, Zehren said.

“The Exploreum is a lot more professional, while here (the Resource Center), it’s more of a homey touch,” she said.

The first floor of the Exploreum is home to “The Powers of Persuasion: The Posters of World War II,” 10 war posters on loan from the War Memorial in Milwaukee.

Many urge people to buy war bonds, but some warn that “Loose Lips Sink Ship,” St. George said.

“These were found all over the country,” she noted.

The second floor features exhibits centered on several local soldiers. It includes the photographs of Biever, images that not only show the destruction and devastation of war but also the daily life of soldiers.

Biever documented the Army’s 100th Infantry Division’s campaign through France and Germany in 1944 and ‘45, and he was awarded the Bronze Star for improving troop morale.

There’s a case that holds a basket filled with bundles of letters that seaman Allen, who served in the Merchant Marine Corps and penned hundreds of letters while away from home. A letter in which Allen tells his parents he is coming home is open and on display.

Another case holds the uniform worn by Sgt. Frank Pujanauski of the Army Air Forces, as well as his medals, dog tags and more. Pujanauski was stationed at Wheeler Air Base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

A signboard in the case reprints his recollections of the day: “That morning Pvt. Pujanauski had gone to 7 o’clock services at chapel on Wheeler air base, where he was stationed with the 46th fighter squadron. He recalled that he was in the mess hall pouring out Rice Krispies for his breakfast when there was a loud, thundering boom. The room emptied immediately as all of the occupants ran out to see planes, insignia of the Japanese rising son flying low over the tent encampment.

“More planes followed in first and second waves of Japanese bombers and fighter planes which strafed and destroyed maintenance buildings, hangars and created utter chaos before some of the friendly planes could get into the air.”

The Exploreum exhibits also include a video loop of USO entertainers with the troops on the building’s first floor and an interview with Joe Demler, who was captured by the Nazis and who was liberated from a prisoner of war camp — a famous photograph of an emaciated Demler being liberated with his fellow POWs was printed in Life magazine.

At the Resource Center, the centerpiece of the exhibit are the boards that list the names of those killed in the war.

“The names just read like a phone book for Port Washington,” Zehren said.

Separate storyboards tell the tales of a few of the men, among them 2nd Lt. Robert Schanen, who had just joined his father William’s law practice when he joined the Army Air Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Schanen was the first Port man to die in World War II, when in September 1943 the plane he was on crashed into a 2,000-foot peak in the black hills of Wales.

The story of 1st Lt. Paul Wiening is also told on a separate board. Wiening was on a C-47A that was forced down on Sept. 7, 1944, while heading to Groesbeck, Holland to drop 10 paratroopers. It was never determined if Wiening had been captured, was killed in the crash or met some other fate.

“The family has gone over to search for his remains,” Zehren said. “I think they’re still searching for him.”

The Resource Center exhibit contains a section devoted to victory gardens and another to fireside chats, with a radio and armchair. There are cases filled with a wide variety of memorabilia, everything from uniforms and flags to photographs, a Blue Star flag and Nazi banner to a series of letters written on toilet paper to Harry Mueller from his military buddies serving in Europe.

“We even have a mystery guy,” Zehren said, pointing to a photograph of a serviceman. “We don’t know who he is. We’re trying to identify him.”

The exhibits are being supplemented by a series of speakers this summer, including Harvey Moshman, executive producer of “Heroes on Deck,” who at 7 p.m. June 9 will discuss the U.S. Navy’s work converting two passenger steamships to makeshift aircraft carriers to train more than 15,000 pilots and 40,000 deck crew members on Lake Michigan.

Allen Buchholz of the Ozaukee County Historical Society will speak on “Port Washington’s Sacrifice in World War II” at 7 p.m. on July 21, and Ken Grigas of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Military Historians will speak on Ozaukee County’s World War II heroes at 7 p.m. Aug. 25.

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