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WWII Flyboys and a Special Night

They say that it’s dangerous to meet your heroes in person lest your image of them be dashed on the rocks of reality. Not so with John Herschel Glenn, Jr.

A United States Senator and former earth-orbiting astronaut, Senator Glenn was the Chairman of our oversight committee which gave me day to day contact with him and his staff in the 1990’s. Just before his retirement from the US Senate, his long-time Administrative Assistant M.J. Veno reached out to me for recommendations on folks who could help with an oral history and memoir. I connected him with then Assistant Senate Historian, Don Ritchie and with Michael Gillette of the Archives, both dear friends and oral history experts.

After preliminary meetings with his daughter Lyn on this “legacy project,” the Senator hosted a private luncheon in his personal office for four of us. That was the first opportunity that I had to meet his wife Annie Castor Glenn, a charming woman whose life-long battle with stuttering and advocacy for those with speech disorders made her a true American role model.

The collaboration between my friends and the Senator resulted in a very successful book and contributed to the establishment of the Glenn School of Public Service at Ohio State University. Through Mike Gillette’s membership on the school’s board of advisors, I continued my association with Senator and Annie Glenn to the ends of their lives, the Senator in 2016 (95) and Annie in 2020 (100). Annie died from complications of COVID-19 at a nursing home near St. Paul, MN.

Of all my times with the Senator, the one that I will remember the longest was the tour that I gave him and General Robert McDermott on opening night of the Archive’s 50th Anniversary of WWII exhibit “Personal Accounts”.

The core of this exhibit was letters, photographs, essays, and interviews with WWII veterans of all ranks as well as their families who supported the effort on the home front. Through space ads in the AARP magazine requesting private records and extensive research in the holdings of the Archives, an exhibit curator at the LBJ Library had assembled a diverse tapestry of personal accounts of the war. The exhibit told the story through the eyes of both ordinary and extraordinary Americans, people that Tom Brokaw would later brand as the “Greatest Generation.”

General McDermott was the CEO of USAA insurance company at the time, whose large financial donation not only funded the exhibit, but became the seed money for the establishment of the Foundation for the National Archives. A decorated combat pilot in the European Theater in WWII, McDermott was the first person appointed to the faculty at the US Air Force Academy and the first Dean of the Faculty. Due to his distinguished career at Colorado Springs, he is known as one of the fathers of military education.

Senator Glenn was in attendance that evening as one of our 45 honorees, members of the House of Representatives and United States Senate who had served in World War II. My idea was to have our staff search the military histories of all 45 of these vets and present them with a package of color facsimiles of the public records of their service. This would honor their service and give them a better idea of the kinds of wonderful resources preserved in the National Archives.

Well, the idea was simple, but the task gargantuan and to this day I am indebted to Shawn Morton and other members of our staff who did hundreds of hours of work to pull it off. Balance was a challenge, and we quickly found that the spectrum ran from one member of congress who just made it out of the Bainbridge, MD Naval Training Center at war’s end to Robert Dole who gave limbs and almost his life to the war effort. We needed fillers for those with light records and a new twist for those whose service was a part of American History.

The night came off as a spectacular success with 30 of the 45 veterans and their wives in attendance. Music from the US Marine Corps String Quartet, beautiful flowers, and candlelight in the Archives Rotunda, gave this magical evening an incredibly special atmosphere. All seemed most appreciative of our efforts.

I spent some of the evening wandering through the exhibit to welcome our congressional guests and to chat with them about what they were seeing. John Dingle, Henry Hyde, Strom Thurmond, Frank Lautenberg, Ted Stevens, and John Warner, all since passed away, were among the super stars of the evening, and I enjoyed my time with each of them.

When Senator Glenn saw me, he asked me to show him, the General, and their wives around. McDermott was enormously proud of the role played by USAA in this exhibition and had a true joy in seeing that it had all come together. As former combat pilots, I remember the camaraderie that these two war heroes displayed in our stroll through the exhibit.

All was routine until we came to one of the smallest artifacts in the exhibit. I moved my four guests toward the little shadow box window that was at eye level to the observer and then stood back to witness their reactions. The box held a six-inch long, one inch diameter brass and steel arming device for the atomic bomb. It was the last part added before the bomb bay doors opened. Small, but powerful in its meaning and implication.

The Smithsonian Institution had gotten into a huge public fracas some months before over the number of American lives saved by dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the War. Their 50th Anniversary Exhibit was eventually scrubbed when they were unable to reach an agreement on the wording of the associated exhibit caption. As their “across-the-Mall" neighbor, our exhibit had already gotten press scrutiny on this very same issue, but we had taken a different tact.

Conventional wisdom had put the number of casualties expected from an invasion of Japan at over a million, but more recent documents had led some historians to make the estimate closer to 63,000 (way too specific to pass any credibility test). We went with “countless lives.” But we also made it clear that saving American lives was foremost in the mind of President Truman when he made the decision. That is a fact that is documented in his papers (held by the National Archives) and only he could make the statement of what was on his mind.

Both Glenn and McDermott broke into a congratulatory chorus upon reading the atomic bomb caption and they took turns pointing at the words as they turned to me to say, “you could teach the Smithsonian a thing or two about documenting history.”

In a successful evening of proud moments, back slaps, and reverent remembrance, that moment was one of the best.


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