This spring, I am living in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, teaching American history to Ukrainian university students as a Fulbright Scholar. Weeks ago, I awoke early on a Sunday morning to head to the city center, where I was greeted by parades, bands, military units marching in formation, veterans covered in medals, and a throng of people of all ages.
What was the occasion? Victory Day, a national holiday that celebrates the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Soviets during World War II. Every May 9, Ukraine enjoys a full day of events honoring those who fought and suffered during that conflict. Older women, known as babushki around here, attend these events, oftentimes wearing their deceased husbands’ military honors with great pride. It is a special day that commemorates a very difficult time in this country’s past, and its events attract thousands.
Though we don’t have a holiday specifically for World War II veterans in the United States, we do have Memorial Day and Veterans Day. And many of us have in recent years focused on honoring the World War II generation, by capturing their memories and preserving their photographs and other items from this era. They are leaving us at the rate of more than 1,200 veterans per day, and thus we must honor them now.
More than 166,000 South Carolinians served in World War II, and many of them already have left us. But they were not the only ones who served. After being appointed to serve as our country’s director of war mobilization, South Carolinian James F. Byrnes announced, “Our people must realize that total war means sacrifice at home as well as the battle front.” Between the shipyards in the Lowcountry, the textile mills in the Upcountry and the airfields and training camps spread throughout, our state did its part on the home front as well.
World War II profoundly affected the lives of the men and women who endured it. Our state, too, experienced great social and economic changes, with the war prompting much of the modernization and diversification that continued throughout the post-war decades.
The Upcountry History Museum in Greenville is charged with presenting and preserving the history of the 15 counties in the northwestern part of the state. On current display is a major exhibit, titled “Weaving Our Survival: Upcountry Stories of World War II,” that features more than 200 photographs, 250 artifacts and excerpts from more than 30 oral histories that can be viewed on touch-screen kiosks. Visitors to the exhibit who lived through World War II are transported back in time. School children have loved seeing the patriotic toys with which children played during the war, and the ways kids assisted in the war effort. Baby boomers get a taste of what life was like for their parents. The exhibit is intended for a multi-generational crowd and will be on display through mid-November.
One aspect of the museum’s World War II project involved the creation of a 24-minute documentary that presents the history of upcountry our state’s role in the war, utilizing oral histories with South Carolinians. “Threads of Victory: Upcountry SC during WWII,” depicts upcountry citizens’ military and home front contributions. The film, which reveals how the upcountry textile industry became a crucial component of the U.S. military’s war preparedness, making uniforms, surgical masks, parachutes and parachute strappings, amongst other items, will air at 10 p.m. Thursday on SCETV’s Southern Lens program.
So after you’ve enjoyed that cookout or trip to the lake, and honored those who have died in service to our country over the Memorial Day weekend, tune in to the statewide premiere of Threads of Victory, and take some time to reflect on the trials, tribulations and ultimate triumph of our state’s own “greatest generation.”
Dr. Tollison is an assistant professor of history at Furman University and museum historian for the Upcountry History Museum. She co-produced “Threads of Victory,” which won a 2008 National Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. Her book, World War II and Upcountry South Carolina: “We Just Did Everything We Could,” was released in November 2009 by The History Press.