At World War I Museum, a mission emerges to preserve troops’ stories

The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo.


By KELSEY ABLES | The Washington Post | Published: May 14, 2020

If, a few months ago, you had asked guest services associate Margaret Witzke what she likes most about working at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, she probably would have said meeting people. Today, even with the Missouri museum closed, that hasn’t changed — though the nature of the interaction certainly has.

Rather than selling tickets and assisting visitors, Witzke, 30, now spends her days transcribing archival letters and getting to know their writers — the American soldiers who fought in the war. Her role is one of many that has been reimagined in an effort to keep museum staff on the payroll, work designed to make the 100-year-old institution’s collection more widely accessible.

Cooped up in her Kansas City apartment, Witzke has been forming first impressions of the soldiers based on their handwriting and eavesdropping on small talk about squadron boxing matches and views of the French countryside. As the pandemic goes on, Witzke has found herself increasingly invested in characters whose fates she might never know and following plots with no clear start or finish. More often than not, she leaves these letters with more questions than answers: Who is John and why is Jack looking for him on the front lines? Did either survive war? She likens the experience to being dropped into the middle of a story, left to figure it out on her own.

Museums around the world have taken a massive hit from the pandemic — layoffs, furloughs and budget cuts abound. By most measures, the predicament for the National WWI Museum is extremely challenging. With no federal funding, it relies heavily on donations, admissions and other on-site sales. Usually, the museum can expect to see more than half a million visitors in a year.

Still, with careful financial modeling, the museum has been able to keep its small team of 42 on-site employees working remotely, assigning them projects that can be done from home. According to museum President and CEO Matthew Naylor, they will be able to fund the project through June, when they anticipate reopening.

Since they began March 23, the 17 employees who have become transcribers have typed up 5,000 pages of letters, diaries and journals; which now can be read out loud, translated into different languages and searched by researchers. They have followed WWI soldiers as they long for farms in Iowa, get seasick on the Atlantic, pine for partners in California and celebrate the war’s end from a chateau in France. Some of it echoes our own time — after all, the 1918 flu, an important reference point for understanding today’s pandemic, arose at the tail end of the war.

In her batch of letters, Witzke has come across some deaths that appear to be a result of the 1918 pandemic (at the time they were attributed to pneumonia), but in general, she said, the letters are less a reminder of the current crisis and more an escape from it. She’s traced Army Lt. Fred Nason Furber’s postvictory “joyride” in the squadron Cadillac through Germany on Google Maps. She’s hunted down the movie theater in California that Army engineer Bill Steege and his partner, Dorothy, reminisced about in a letter. And she has tried, in vain, to figure out whether soldier Jack Helnick, who wrote the first collection of letters she transcribed, survived his Army tour of duty. Witzke said the extra research helps with fact-checking, but she’s also interested in following the men’s stories: Where did they go? What happened to them?

Between watching birds outside his window and chatting with his grandchildren across his driveway, guest services employee Joe Saviano, 68, also has felt swept up by the worlds and characters of his letters.

After a three-day trip to South Carolina for training, Army Pvt. Howard Wood, a farm boy from Iowa, writes to his parents about the broad Ohio River, “yellow with mud”; the “brick red” and “white as paper” soil of the American South; and cleaning a small town out of fruit, cookies and pie. From France, he writes of dark nights on the ocean surrounded by water that is “full of dancing lights” and the sights near the port: a castle on the sea and a hill “honeycombed with secret passages.” While transcribing the scenes, “I could picture it in my head,” Saviano said.

Through those rich descriptions, the characters come into focus. “You definitely get a feel for their personalities, their sense of humor, what kind of foods they like,” he adds.

There was Wood, equipped with his mess kit (“as cute as a bug’s ear,” Wood writes) and a boyish awe. Witzke talks about the endlessly amusing Fred Furber (worst penmanship of the bunch, she declares), giving out chewing gum to boys in Germany, and the terribly clingy Bill Steege, scolding Dorothy for not “making (her)self heard” for 20 days.

Reading letters might be likened to listening to someone talk on the phone or reading the account of an unreliable narrator. Peeking into relationships from one side, you must fill in the missing parts yourself. Witzke wondered whether Dorothy ever told Bill to “back off!” as Witzke would have. Saviano speculated one of his letter writers, who is curiously vague about a predeployment excursion to New York, didn’t want to tell his parents about what really happened. Saviano laughed, “I think he got drunk in the big city.”

Sometimes, those missing parts grow into fictions. “When you see enough Jacks and Johns that nobody can find on the front, in your head, you almost start world building,” Witzke said. She has caught herself thinking, “Oh, this is all the same Jack and these are all the same Johns; these guys all know each other!” Or, knee-deep in Dorothys, she has found herself wondering, “Oh, man, are they moving in on the same girl?”

Ultimately, though, transcribing the letters is less like reading fiction about history and more like living through it. Withholding details and resisting plot, the pages in the museum’s collection rarely offer the comfort of a clear beginning, middle and end. Like most honest retellings, they’re full of blind spots, gray areas and guessing games.

The Exhibit Hall at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo.

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