While debate rages over wars the U.S. is waging in Afghanistan and Iraq, and President Obama considers increasing troops in one and withdrawing from the other, local historians are actively engaged in gathering memorabilia from friends and family of vets of all wars involving Moab soldiers.
“We liberate Paris, the City of Light,” 1944, a photo by GI Dwain Barker. Courtesy of the Barker Family Collection
The Museum of Moab announced the special effort several months ago and has designated a section of the museum for eventual permanent display of donated items as well as special exhibits of materials on loan from friends and families of Moab men and women who served in World Wars I and II, the Korean war, Vietnam, and invasions of Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re also interested in oral histories, because their stories are just as important as those of people from other areas,” said Travis Schenck, museum director.
So far, the museum has received little response to its appeals for personal war stories and mementos, Schenck said. “I think the word is out, but I’m not sure what the lack of interest is,” added Cary Cox, volunteer in charge of the campaign. In October and November, Cox plans to publicize the effort more as his bed-and-breakfast, The Mayor’s House, slows down and allows him more time to devote to the project, which requires considerable one-on-one contact.
At this time, the museum has dedicated a section in a back room for a display on WW II that includes a battle uniform, a dress uniform, helmets, gas masks, serviceman flags, and scanned photographs of Moab soldiers from World Wars I and II. Schenck said the museum prefers that families keep items that they’ll want back, as the museum has no room for temporary storage. But they are working on an expanded display area to accommodate collections as the extent of what’s available is determined and documented, and people donate for permanent collections.
American GI Dwain Barker relaxes at a café after participating in the U.S. military liberation of Paris, France, 1944
“We may have exhibits in the future and put a call out (for items on loan), so we encourage families to let the museum know what they have,” he said.
“A lot’s happened in 100 years, but right now it’s a small section,” Cox said. “So we hope eventually to have a section where we can have some nice displays.”
Cox is excited by the response received to date, because of the significance of the items a local family has described. He’s met with two individuals -- Andrea Winters and her sister Glenna Ruby, wife of soldier Murray Ruby, who was awarded a Purple Heart in World War II, and had the original photo that was made into a WW II postage stamp: the Bloody Bucket Brigade marching in front of the Arc of Triumph. “He was the only soldier in the front row who was looking a different direction,” Cox said.
Part of Cox’s enthusiasm is due to his own father and grandfather’s service in the two world wars. Currently, the museum is focusing on getting “surrogates” (scanned duplicates) of original photographs and other documents. “The next step will be to go out to get families to share family histories of the wars.”
A cousin to Winters and Ruby, this writer mentioned a story to Cox about her father, Dwain Barker, who had written a story about a collection of Nazi souvenirs from Germany and Nuremburg that he’d acquired by trading candy and cigarettes with prisoners. “Although in France there were rules against trading anything with war prisoners in exchange for Nazi medals, patches and other emblems, most of us found it quite simple,” Sgt. Barker wrote.
In 1945, he received a furlough to see his ailing father in Moab and was told by the pilot on a transfer flight from Germany to Paris (to catch a flight on the “Green Project” to America) that there was no room for his souvenir-stuffed knapsack on the reconnaissance plane -- a Lightning P-38 that had been grounded various times but was the only transportation available that night. But Barker pleaded, the pilot relented, and after the soldier crawled into an emptied and snug radio compartment, the pilot took the knapsack and tucked it somewhere up front.
“Little did I know my persistence would nearly cost two lives,” Barker later wrote.
Collection of Nazi souvenirs
Courtesy of the Barker Family Collection
He realized he didn’t have a parachute but didn’t want to press the issue with the pilot, “as I‘d asked too much of him already,” and the fellow was eager to get to Paris for a date. The plane shuddered at take-off “like a Model-T Ford” and was roaring at 350 mph at 1,000 feet when suddenly a puff of smoke appeared outside the windshield.
“Hold onto your seat,” the pilot commanded, throwing the plane into a nosedive. “The earth was looming up so swiftly, it seemed we were caught in the lens of a zoom camera.
“Suddenly he pulled her out of the dive, just above the tree tops. The old plane shuddered, recovered quickly, and I felt as if I’d be sucked through the bottom. The smell of overheated metal was strong, and the pilot had become noticeably nervous.”
Luckily, Paris was just ahead, they received immediate clearance, and landed without incident. Getting out, the pilot showed Barker what had happened. The side panel of the plane, an air vent where the pilot had stuffed the knapsack, wouldn’t open without some force. “Your knapsack was jamming this, causing the engine to overheat,” wrote Barker. “We arrived just in time.”
Paintings by U.S. Air Force Sgt. Dwain Barker of Nazi mementos later published in the Salt Lake Tribune, 1947. Courtesy of the Barker Family Collection
Barker told the pilot he thought it was a purposeful “thrill-of-a-ride,” and saluted and thanked the colonel. From Paris, he caught a flight to Portugal, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland, then to America, “thanking my lucky stars the whole time, and treasuring my World War II mementos (which) passed through U.S. Customs without incident.”
Sketches that Barker made of the mementos remain in his scrapbook about the war, and his painting of a skull, the Nazi Iron Cross, a helmet and a German dagger was later published in the arts section of the Salt Lake Tribune. Before moving to Salt Lake City in the late ’70s, Barker gifted his collection of souvenirs to a young man who had shared Barker’s passion about World War II history.
Glenna Ruby, on the other hand, states unequivocally that she will never give up her deceased husband’s mementos. She agreed to show the Purple Heart to a young man who desires to see the real thing for himself, and she’s willing to display war items when the museum is ready, but the Purple Heart, especially, is too close to her heart to ever let go of.