A nation with a common purpose

Collector displays records of Maryland's World War II veterans and their times

A Passion For Military History

December 07, 2008|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

George S. Rich is passionate about World War II and the stories of the men and women who fought and died in it.

You can hear it in his voice when he talks about figures such as Maj. Douglas H. Stone, M.D., who landed on Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as part of Johns Hopkins Field Hospital No. 18.

"He operated for three days straight because casualties were so high," Rich said. "He slept on his helmet when he slept at all."

The blood was deep around his boots, and when bandages and gauze ran out, Stone bound the wounds with scraps of parachutes, Rich said.

Rich, 60, is a trustee of the Maryland Historical Society and Maryland Military Historical Society at the 5th Regiment Armory, and is a colonel in the Maryland Defense Force. He was the chief of staff for the Maryland medical units that served in New Orleans after it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. He lives in Roland Park and directs an investment fund called GRI Fund, LP.

But it's the Second World War that stirs his soul, and his collection of war artifacts, arms and equipment makes up the bulk of the Maryland Veterans of World War II: Our Arsenal of Democracy exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society.

Recently, he stopped by the Historical Society's campus on West Monument Street to talk about his lifelong fascination.

When did you first become interested in World War II?

Oh, I guess I was 5 years old. My dad was very military. He was a lawyer, but was very fond of his military experience [in the Maryland National Guard]. I grew up in the shadow of World War II. I was a kid of the '50s, and almost everybody's father had served in some capacity, many overseas. A lot of the women had served overseas, too, in combat theaters as a nurse. And the war was still a big deal, a huge deal.

As a little kid, I would collect helmets and trade for souvenirs. ... And every time I met an adult, I would try to bring the conversation around to World War II.

What was it about that particular war that interested you so much?

To me, the defending of our country with legitimized killing, killing promoted to the highest art ... was such an antithesis to Christianity. To me, this was such a huge contrast in our culture.

I was drawn to it because it was so different to a peaceful little kid in Roland Park. I was a Cub Scout, a Boy Scout, an acolyte in the church, where you learned to turn the other cheek. And the military was the exact opposite.

Give us a sense of the size of your collection.

It probably encompasses 70 or 80 veterans and their oral histories and their artifacts. It's not on display at my house, it's all packed away all over the place. This is about 30 percent of my collection on display here.

What does this exhibit tell us about the war?

The beauty of this exhibit is that it shows the entire country pulling together in every way, with the common purpose of winning the war. And we had a clear enemy, there was no question about that. It galvanized the country. There was a huge national spirit.

People sacrificed a lot. At home, you couldn't get tires, you couldn't buy cars, gasoline was rationed, you couldn't get red meat or butter. On the military side, guys would be gone for three, four years. And they couldn't call home, it was all letters. ... A lot of families broke up, wives left husbands, guys were lonely as hell. ... It's a time in our history that's worth commemorating.

As the years go by, do you find people less and less interested in learning about the war?

Oh, yes, of course. ... A lot of the people who lived it and talked about it are dead. In doing this exhibition ... I find young kids have an incredibly deep knowledge of World War II guns, because of video games. But they don't have a sense of what the whole [war] is about. They have no sense of how this country pulled together, because they've never seen it.

You seem more interested in the stories behind the artifacts in this exhibition than the artifacts themselves.

I'm [interested] in an artifact if it tells a story that comes to life. I mean, you can find all the M-1 carbines you want, all the helmets you want. [But] you want to find [items] that were actually carried by someone with an interesting story that comes to life.

A lot of collectors get the [artifacts] from veterans and never try to establish the history or provenance behind them. It's just a money thing with them. ... They don't care about the story.

You continue to collect war memorabilia. What do you hope to do with your collection in the long term?

My goal is to have this stuff in a museum 100 years from now and have it tell such a poignant story about World War II that the hair on the back of your neck stands up.

if you go

What: Maryland Veterans of World War II: Our Arsenal of Democracy

Where: Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., Baltimore

When: Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Dec. 31.

Cost: adults, $4; children 13 to 17, students with ID and seniors, $3; veterans and children 12 and younger, free.

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