A Moving Veterans Exhibit at the Wakefield History Museum

07Dec14

wong2“It should not be just one day. We should be thinking about the service men and women every day,” State Rep. Donald Wong said at Wakefield’s 2014 Veterans Day ceremonies.
When Rep. Wong speaks at local Veterans Day or Memorial Day ceremonies, he always ends his remarks with some version of that same message about honoring veterans beyond just the designated holidays.

Little Red SchoolhouseWith its new Veterans Exhibit at the Wakefield History Museum in the old West Ward School building on Prospect Street, the Wakefield Historical Society is doing its part to help us remember the contributions of Wakefield veterans of all wars.

The exhibit, which will run through June 2015, opened last Sunday and features photographs, paintings, uniforms and artifacts dating back to Wakefield’s role in the Revolutionary War.

The current exhibit features a special focus on World War I. Many of the items on display were donated or are on loan from the family of Colonel Edward J. Connelly, a local hero of World War I and the Spanish American War. He later served the town of Wakefield, Massachusetts as State Representative and as a member of the Finance Committee. Colonel Connelly died in Wakefield in 1960.

Three of Col. Connelly’s descendants, Kathy Connelly, Ann Connelly and John Montgomery were on hand for Sunday’s exhibit opening.

WW1_display
One exhibit table is covered with a military blanket from World War I. The display features a copy of a Wakefield Daily Item from April 29, 1918 with the headline, “War Crosses for Four Wakefield Soldiers Awarded for Gallantry Under Fire in France.” The four soldiers in the story were (then) Captain Connelly, Sgt. Junius Beebe, Corporal Nathan Eaton and Corp. Harry E. Nelson. Nelson was the first Wakefield boy to die in the trenches during World War I. The local American Legion Corp. Harry E. Nelson Post 63 is named for him.

bootsOn the same table is a World War I German helmet sent home by Col. Connelly. Local historian John wall points out that Connelly actually shipped the helmet home with the address and stamps placed right on the outside of the helmet itself.

Wall explained that a small World War I “trench shovel” in the exhibit was actually a weapon. “No one dug trenches with these,” Wall said. Wall also pointed out “trench knife,” a dual purpose weapon whose metal handle doubled as a set of brass knuckles.

The Wakefield Historical Society’s Nancy Bertrand held up a large piece of triangular cloth from the World War I display. The first aid cloth was produced by the Johnson & Johnson Company, she said, and printed right on the cloth were illustrated examples of how the cloth could be used as a bandage, a sling and for other first-aid purposes.

A nearby glass exhibit case displays Col. Connelly’s helmet, military ID card, binoculars, quartermaster book and a hand-drawn battle map. Also preserved under glass is a poppy that Col. Connelly sent to his wife with the note, “picked in a field from which we drove the Germans.”

nasella_letterAnother case features memorabilia of Wakefield soldier Private Henry J. Nasella. A handwritten letter from Pvt. Nasella to his parents attempts to re-assure them. “Dear mother and father,” the soldier writes from Fort Slocum on Aug, 23, 1917, “Don’t worry about me, because it is great.”

The letter is heartbreaking in light of the typewritten letter from Capt. John Linney sent less than a year later to Mr. and Mrs. Michael Nasella of 209 Vernon St.

“It is with great regret that I have to inform you of the death of your son, Private Henry Nasella,” Linney wrote. “Pvt. Nasella was killed during a German air raid over a small railroad depot in France.”

Another display case holds a wooden canteen from the Revolutionary War as well as a powder horn made from a cow’s horn and used to carry black gunpowder for muzzle loading rifles and muskets. There is also a soldier’s blanket carried by Nathaniel Cowdrey, another familiar Wakefield name.

The Veterans Exhibit also features many artifacts, uniforms and other items connected to the service of Wakefield men and women in World War II, including the full dress uniform worn by Lt. E.B. Willis on the day of her wedding to Charles Willis.

willis_uniformSometimes we fall into the habit of seeing fallen soldiers as merely names on a list. But the letters in the museum display bring home the real-life pain and anguish that the deaths of these soldiers caused to families like our own.

Being in the presence items that have a true physical connection to real human beings from our town who served, and in some cases died for us, has more power than any description or photograph can hope to convey. Real soldiers wore these uniforms. They carried and used those trench shovels and trench knives. They drank from those canteens. They wrote all those letters from the battlefront.

According to Nancy Bertrand and John Wall, the Veterans Exhibit will run through June 2015 and will evolve over time with new items added. The museum is still looking for artifacts and photos to be loaned or donated to the exhibit. They are especially seeking artifacts and photos related to the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Digital photos may be emailed to wakefieldhistory@gmail.com, or you can bring them to be scanned at Wakefield Un-Common, 306 Main St. You can also email to make arrangements to loan or donate any items to the exhibit, or write to P.O. Box 1902, Wakefield MA 01880.

There will be monthly museum open hours beginning in January, Bertrand says, which will be listed on the Wakefield Historical Society website, on the Wakefield Historical Society Facebook page and will also be advertised in the Daily Item. The Wakefield Historical Society also maintains an email list to send out news and exhibit hours. You can join the list at wakefieldhistory@gmail.com.

[This story originally appeared in the December 4, 2014 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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