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Oklahoma History Center Opens New WWII-themed Exhibit (Dec 07, 2011)

Seventy years ago, an attack on a Hawaiian naval base pushed the country into war. As KGOU’s Brian Hardzinski reports, the "Oklahomans and Infamy" exhibit opening Wednesday at the Oklahoma History Center looks at the state’s role in Pearl Harbor and World War II.

President Roosevelt’s appeal to Congress to declare war on Japan inspired the title of the new exhibit. “Oklahomans and Infamy” begins with a depiction of Depression life that Director of Exhibits David Davis said transformed into the economic boom created by the newly-opened air depot in Midwest City and Will Rogers Field prior to World War Two.

“By the end of the war in 1945, there were 39 military-related places in Oklahoma,” Davis said. “They started to employ those civilians who didn’t otherwise have much.”

The exhibit progresses through the late 1930s, telling stories of state residents affected by early Japanese aggression in the Pacific Rim. Private First Class William Canning served in the Philippines. A small shelf holds the last piece of mail he sent to his mother before the Japanese attacked Clark Field hours after Pearl Harbor.

“She kept writing him up until I believe 1943,” said Matt Reed, the museum’s Curator of American Indian and Military History Collections. “All of the letters are marked ‘Return to Sender,’ and she did not get official notice of his status until 1946.”

Many artifacts in the collection came from the state’s namesake battleship that lost 429 sailors during the attack.

“The ship’s wheel, and the letters actually were salvaged off the U.S.S. Oklahoma when it was upturned in 1943,” Reed said. “The flag behind it is one of the last United States flags to be flown on the Oklahoma, if not the last.”

A solitary glass case holds stationary, a Naval cutlass, and deck boards from the U.S.S. Oklahoma recovered after it sank. But Matt Reed called a dark brown officer’s tunic “the most intriguing artifact.”

“It’s actually supposed to be pure white,” Reed said. “When they were attacked, the sailor wearing it went into the water that was covered with fuel oil, and that’s what you see; the result of diving into Pearl Harbor.”

Oklahomans didn’t just defend the island of Oahu from the decks of destroyers and carriers. 2nd Lt. Kenneth Taylor took to the skies on that sunny December morning.

“He was from Hominy, Oklahoma,” Reed said. “He was one of five men that was able to get in aircraft, get in the air, and shoot down Japanese planes over Pearl Harbor.”

Taylor shot down four planes that Sunday, and one case in the History Center contains a flight suit, jacket, and uniform from military serving the Chrysanthemum Throne.

"I really wanted to put a human element to the enemy,” Reed said. “They’re not robotic machines flying over these ships in Pearl Harbor. There are people in them.”

Matt Reed says veterans he’s talked to seem excited about the exhibit, and hope it reminds a younger generation of the sacrifice made by The Greatest Generation.

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