Inside the World War II Foundation, you will see helmets pecked with bullet holes. You’ll see bayonets of every shape and sharpness. You’ll see medals, machine guns, and flags of all stripes. Quietly stationed on Main Street in Wakefield, the museum is deceptively large, its collection startling. It’s rare to see an authentic “brown shirt” uniform from the early days of German fascism. Nowhere else in the world can you see John Wayne’s costume from The Longest Day. And if you’ve always yearned to touch a rusted slice of metal from the USS Arizona, the destroyer ambushed and sunk at Pearl Harbor, this is your chance to touch it.
“We also emphasize that all the artifacts in the education center were used by someone in the war,” says Tim Gray, a historian, filmmaker, and South Kingstown native. “Some of the stories we know, many we don’t, but they all have a personal story behind them.”
The WWII Foundation started as a documentary film series. After Gray studied journalism at URI, he worked for 15 years as a news and sports anchor. Starting with D-Day: The Price of Freedom in 2006, Gray has produced 23 films to date, covering the gamut of World War II-related subjects, in the hopes of documenting – and humanizing – the Greatest Generation.
The films themselves have been a raging success: Gray has traveled around the world, from Normandy to Guadalcanal, interviewing veterans and investigating every niche of the global conflict. His films air regularly on Public Television, and they are among the network’s most requested programs. Celebrity narrators include Gary Sinise and Damian Lewis, and Gray has been a guest on TV and at the White House. And there is far more to come.
“I’d say 75 percent of the interviews, people haven’t seen yet,” says Gray. “This enables us to have a huge library of interviews with veterans, survivors, people on the homefront, etc., to draw on for the next 20 years of our films, even when the last World War II veteran eventually passes away in the next 10 to 15 years.”
The museum is full of surprises, but the biggest surprise is its international collection: You can see Japanese banners and uniforms, a doll crafted in a concentration camp, German ephemera covered in swastikas, and place settings from Hitler’s own dining room. Hundreds of young students have made their way through the museum, and Gray has been deeply satisfied with these interchanges.
“You need to personalize it for them,” Gray says. “Explain to them the significance of the event and, based on their age group, tell them what someone their age would have been doing to support the war effort. The students are just fascinated to see these objects up close and in color, and some of the artifacts they can hold – or, in the case of the air raid siren, make some noise.”