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The echoes of war: Curatorial legacies of World War II

A mere 75 years ago aboard the battleship Missouri, representatives of the Japanese Emperor, his government, and the Imperial General Headquarters signed the Instrument of Surrender in a ceremonial end to the 20th century’s greatest conflict. That same day, three future curators and the inaugural director of the National Museum of American History were serving in the Pacific Theater. As the nation pauses to reflect on Victory over Japan (VJ) Day, the echoes of the conflict still reverberate within the museum’s military exhibitions thanks to the work of these four past teammates.   

Surrender aboard USS Missouri
Gen. Yoshijirō Umezu, Chief of the Army General Staff, signing the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters aboard the battleship USS Missouri, September 2, 1945.

Ensign Philip K. Lundeberg (1923-2019) was in San Francisco, trying to catch up with his new ship, when he learned about the end of the war. Months prior, he had been serving as a damage control officer aboard the destroyer escort Frederick C. Davis. On the morning of April 24, 1945, a torpedo fired from the German submarine U-546 struck the ship amidships, breaking it in two. As the Frederick C. Davis sank rapidly, Lundeberg found himself hanging on to a life raft in the frigid waters off Newfoundland, one of only 77 survivors of the ship’s company of 192 men. Later, after helping to write the ship’s final action report and letters of condolence to the families of the fallen, he eventually received orders to join the destroyer escort McCoy Reynolds, then at Okinawa.

Ensign Lundeberg aboard Frederick C. Davis
Ensign Philip K. Lundeberg in 1945 aboard the USS Frederick C. Davis (DE-136)

Army Technician fifth grade Harold D. Langley (1925-2020) of the 550th Signal Base Depot Company was on the island of Saipan when news of the surrender reached him. Since arriving on the island in February 1945, Langley had supervised five men at the signal section of a warehouse providing Signal Corps personnel with supplies for operations in the Western Pacific Theater, notably the fighting in the Philippines. Practically every evening, Langley could hear the roar of B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers flying out of Saipan and nearby Tinian to bomb targets in Japan.

At Leyte in the Philippines, Lieutenant (junior grade) Mendel L. Peterson (1918-2003) worked as chief supply officer and paymaster aboard the repair ship Tutuila. Peterson was aboard the ship in August 1944 when it joined Service Squadron 10 in the Solomon Islands and served as a floating advance base. The ships and crew operated 24 hours a day, supporting elements of the navy’s Pacific Fleet in operations in and around the Philippines, with stops in the Marshall and Caroline Islands. At the time of VJ Day, Peterson and the Tutuila oversaw the repair and support of an array of ships and small craft.

LTJG Peterson
Ensign Mendel L. Peterson in 1943, after graduation from the U.S. Navy Supply Corps School, Newport, Rhode Island.

Captain Frank A. Taylor (1903-2007) found himself on the ground in the Philippines on VJ Day. A battery commander with the 734th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion, Taylor’s age of 42 years placed him apart from most officers of his rank. He participated in the liberation of the Philippines, landing in Luzon in January 1945 with the U.S. Sixth Army. In the fighting against Japanese forces in the mountains near Manila, Taylor’s battery of 90mm guns pummeled enemy command posts, ammunition dumps, and troop concentrations in between fighting off counterattacks with the aid of Filipino guerrillas. Around September 1945, Taylor received orders to report to the city of Davao on Mindanao and serve as the U.S. Army’s Enemy Property Custodian Officer.

By the end of 1946, all four men had come home. Lundeberg went on to earn his doctorate in history at Harvard University. He remained in the Naval Reserve and spent several years working on active duty for Captain Samuel Eliot Morison as a research assistant focused on the Battle of the Atlantic. Langley used the GI Bill to enroll in Catholic University of America, eventually earning his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1960. His doctoral research focused on the navy, specifically social reform within the service from 1798 to 1862. Peterson also remained in the Naval Reserve and joined the Smithsonian’s National Museum as an associate curator in the Division of Military and Naval History. There he joined Taylor, promoted to major upon his separation from active duty, working as Head Curator in the museum’s Department of Engineering and Industries.

Taylor with museum under construction
Frank A. Taylor examines the construction of the National Museum of History and Technology, 1964.
Harold Langley, 1960s
Dr. Harold D. Langley came to the museum in 1969 as an associate curator of naval history.

In 1958, Taylor was appointed the inaugural director of the new National Museum of History and Technology. The following year, Peterson, Head Curator and Chairman of the Department of Armed Forces History, brought Lundeberg onboard to help develop the museum’s Armed Forces Hall. Lundeberg recalled that as the museum stood up and staff assembled from across the nation, “we had that bond that existed between men and some women in the museum who had served during World War II.” Among the military history staff, “we had a basis of appreciation of our subject that was personal, and . . . a camaraderie that I discovered extended to other members of the staff that became more apparent as we moved over to the new museum.” When Langley joined the staff as an associate curator in naval history in 1969, he found himself among kindred spirts

The legacy of the wartime experience of these four men is still found on the floor of the museum today in the form of various artifacts and small displays. Perhaps the most prominent object linking these individuals is the quietly majestic Gunboat Philadelphia. Taylor and Lundeberg together helped bring this lone surviving vessel of the American Revolution to the museum in the early 1960s. Through the dedicated research of Peterson and Lundeberg, the secrets of the boat’s construction and archaeology, its weaponry, and its crew are known today. Joining the gunboat as one of the foundational artifacts of the military collection is the Star-Spangled Banner. When the museum opened in January 1964, Taylor had the flag made a centerpiece of the exhibitions. During his tenure as a curator, Langley advanced the study of the flag, the context behind its symbolism, and the lives and stories surrounding its creation and history.

Lundeberg aboard Gunboat
Left to right, Philip K. Lundeberg, Howard Hoffman, and Melvin Jackson aboard the Gunboat Philadelphia during preparations for exhibition, 1964
Dr. Harold D. Langley
Dr. Harold D. Langley in his home office
Mendel L. Peterson
Mendel L. Peterson points out a detail on a cannon to a group of National Associates members on tour of the underwater archeology exhibits, 1972.

Every one of the 16 million American men and women who served in uniform during World War II ultimately contributed to the restoration of peace and building of a better tomorrow. The National Museum of American History is richer for the work of these four veterans, and their contributions to the study and preservation of both the Gunboat Philadelphia and the Star-Spangled Banner will further educate and inspire countless visitors on the eve of the nation’s 250th anniversary.   

Star-Spangled Banner
The Star-Spangled Banner being installed in the center atrium of the National Museum of History and Technology, around 1964

Frank Blazich Jr. is a curator in the Division of Political and Military History.