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MacArthur Memorial museum adds artifacts as people clean out attics during pandemic

Archivist Jim Zobel points out some of the treasures in a recent donation from the Spanish American War made to Norfolk's MacArthur Memorial Museum.

STEPHEN M. KATZ, THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

By AMY POULTER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: September 10, 2020

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NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — For 56 years, the MacArthur Memorial’s museum has stood at 198 Bank St. in downtown Norfolk.

When its doors opened on Jan. 26, 1964 — the 84th birthday of its namesake Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur — the museum’s exhibits consisted of “pretty much everything MacArthur had,” museum archivist Jim Zobel said. When the beloved general died months later, his body was interred inside its walls.

Since then, researchers and archivists have steadily worked to gather artifacts related to MacArthur, quintupling its collection in half a century.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic helped Zobel add quite a bit more to the collection.

As folks around the world spent more and more time at home, digging through family heirlooms and cleaning out closets and attics, artifacts have poured in.

“It’s like Christmas every day here,” Zobel said.

“There’s a million guys that served in MacArthur’s theater,” Zobel said of the Southwest Pacific Theater in WWII. “They’re looking to this place as the place they’ll donate their materials, because we are the only museum really dedicated to this war in the South Pacific.”

Zobel said same goes for those who served in MacArthur’s Rainbow Division during WWI or under the general during the Korean war or with his father, Arthur MacArthur Jr., in the Spanish-American war.

“We get a lot of people that will look for years and years to find the right niche for the stuff they have. They’ll come to us to preserve their stuff,” he said.

It started when a man from Washington state got in touch with Zobel about donating his life’s work. Soon, boxes upon boxes of artifacts, documents and information about about the Battle of Corregidor, in which the Japanese consolidated control of the Philippines in 1942, and the island itself, where MacArthur had set up camp for U.S. Army Forces in the Far East before moving to Australia.

“For the past five months, I’ve been getting five mailboxes probably every other week just filled will stuff about Corregidor,” Zobel said. “I’m looking at a stack of 20 boxes now, and this is something people have been wanting to learn more about for years.”

Five years’ worth of newspaper clippings were sent in from a woman whose father helped build Naval Station Norfolk, Zobel said, detailing its inception to completion in 1917.

Philippine prisoners of war have donated artwork created inside the walls of Japanese-run internment camps during WWII. Soldiers who served on MacArthur’s honor guard have sent in materials and photographs from the occupation of Japan.

Another donation came from a man whose father served as a general in the Spanish-American war and had amassed a collection of Philippine hats and helmets.

“I had a guy donate his mother’s diary from the prison camp she was in,” Zobel said. “To me, that’s gold. It’s an original piece of history.”

Last fall, Zobel received a German Mauser firearm from a family who had looked forever for a museum that that highlighted the Spanish-American war.

“The grandfather served down in Puerto Rico in the war, but he had a captured German Mauser. Pristine. But this is a highly exotic weapon, as you might say, because it was made especially for the Spanish. It’s a Mauser, but it’s a Modelo Espanol,” he said.

Of the most incredible artifacts he’s received lately, Zobel said, is sections of rope. But it’s not just any rope.

“The top Japanese general of World War II was this guy Tomoyuki Yamashita. He was hung in the Philippines after the war, he was accused of war crimes. The family of the guard that took care of him donated all the stuff he had collected,” Zobel said.

Not only had the guard kept Yamashita’s mementos, but he kept the ropes used to tie Yamashita’s hands and the rope used to hang the Japanese general.

“Unbelievable stuff, and it’s all on display,” Zobel said.

Overall, the museum and its archives are home to more than 100,000 photographs, 2 million documents, 600 films and 40,000 books.

Zobel said they’re always looking for more to add to their collection, so if you are doing some cleaning around the house and stumble across something you think they’d want, check out the donation process on the museum’s website at macarthurmemorial.org/221/Donate.

“It’s just rolling in right now,” Zobel said. “There’s a million people that have something up in their attic. They just don’t know it yet.”

©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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The personal effects of Japan Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, donated by Lt. Col. Charles Helderman, a prison guard to whom Yamashita gave the items before being executed.
STEPHEN M. KATZ, THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT