History lessons don’t normally arrive on wheels — except when a museum keeps memories of World War I fresh by sending its exhibit on the road.
On Wednesday, Veterans Memorial Park in Napa played host to "Honoring Our History," the Great War exhibition inside a tractor-trailer that has crisscrossed the United States since last fall. A couple thousand visitors converged on the downtown park for a one-day showing of war artifacts, videos and storyboards about the four-year conflict that recently lost its last living witnesses, but not its power to impress itself into modern minds.
“You never can end it — it seems like it goes on forever,” Lucille Piehl, 81, said quietly as she looked intently at a tripod-mounted, .30-caliber Colt machine gun in the museum trailer’s darkened space.
The National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo., is using the rolling exhibit to publicize its collection of artifacts from the 1914-18 conflict. More than 60 articles from the museum’s collection are on display during the tour, which began last year and is scheduled to reach 75 cities.
The museum and co-sponsor Waddell & Reed, a Kansas mutual fund begun by two Great War veterans, will split donations with the city, with Napa’s share to be used for the upkeep of Veterans Memorial Park. Organizers, who hope to raise about $500,000 during the tour, are sharing donations collected at each stop with local sponsors to support cultural and community groups hit hard by funding cuts.
Amid wall-size storyboards outlining the course of the First World War, displays within the rolling museum provided glimpses of life in and out of combat: French and British army tunics, rifles, a stretcher for wounded soldiers, and a German sheepskin-and-celluloid gas mask that provided a fragile barrier against a choking death from chemical weapons.
Crude log-like paneling against one wall suggested the cramped conditions of battlefield trenches. Black-and-white photographs alternated the desolation of shell-blasted homes and fields with quieter moments like soldiers’ card games during breaks in the fighting — and the celebratory parade in New York after the armistice that ended the ear on Nov. 11, 1918.
The arrival of “Honoring Our History” in Napa follows the losses of the last living connections to the war it commemorates. With no more firsthand accounts of that time possible, projects like the traveling museum have a new importance, a Yountville man said after stepping out of the exhibition.
“It’s very important now. We have to know about these things. Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” David Hudson said after seeing the displays with his son, Todd, who was visiting from Benicia for the occasion.
“It’s unfortunate that even World War II is being forgotten; in 10 or 15 years there won’t be anyone left from that war to tell the stories,” Todd Hudson added. “We tend to let things go out of sight, out of mind.”
On Feb. 7, the world’s last known Great War veteran, Florence Green, died in Australia less than two weeks short of her 111th birthday. Green worked at two British air bases in 1918 as a 17-year-old in the Royal Air Force women’s auxiliary.
The last American World War I veteran, Cpl. Frank Buckles, an Army ambulance driver who served in France, died in February 2011 at age 110.
Local organizers estimated about 2,000 came to view the traveling World War I museum on Wednesday. For Jim Bodle, who has driven the exhibit since the tour began in June, the response from visitors already has made it one of the most memorable periods in his life.
“This is gonna be tough to top,” said Bodle, a former Coast Guardsman, who will accompany the exhibit through the tour’s May conclusion. “A lot of people come by bring artifacts, lithographs, photos. I’m a veteran myself and I’ve really enjoyed it.”