Stories of war find new relevance
By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer
A year ago, Vinnie Luisi had no idea how well his idea of honoring World War II veterans would be received at the Dunedin Historical Museum.
He and others set out to honor Dunedin residents and the city's participation in the war effort 60 years ago. What they didn't bargain for was a relevant history lesson on war time in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It's happening all over again, 60 years almost to the day," said Luisi, director of the museum. "All those men and women went to war. If they hadn't done that, who knows where we would be today."
In the early 1940s, Dunedin was transformed from just another small town in Florida into one that extended a helping hand to the war effort.
In all, 305 Dunedin residents were shipped off to war. Others worked in Tampa shipyards, rationed their food and saved paper and rubber.
Dunedin was home to Citrus Concentrates Inc., a maker of orange juice concentrate for troops and allies, which shipped 28-million cans overseas. There was also a manufacturing plant that made the "Alligator" tank, an amphibian vehicle originally designed by Clearwater resident Donald Roebling to rescue people from hurricanes, but was used in waging war. In fact, as many as 250 marines were stationed in Dunedin to test the vehicle.
Even the city's old library was recruited for wartime, serving as a watch tower for enemy aircraft and submarines, Luisi said.
The exhibit detailing these and other stories opened Dec. 7 and features vintage film, newspaper clippings, photographs and military uniforms.
The museum may be mined for a wealth of history. A letter dated June 26, 1944, begins: "All I know is what I read in the paper and boy, from all accounts, the old "29' is knocking the Nazis on their axis. Keep it up boy. But I bet it's hell, isn't it?"
In the same glass enclosed case, an unrelated telegram alerts someone at home that "Jack has been reported killed in action."
That grim reminder is flanked by a purple heart, a combat decoration given to a soldier or the family of a soldier wounded by the enemy.
To help children comprehend the war, the museum included an interactive section. It allows children to re-create their own World War II battle scene, play World War II-related games on two computers or dress up in the same military regalia as their forefathers.
"Everybody in the community was involved in one way or another with the war effort," Luisi said. "Several classes have come to visit. We talk to younger kids about how it was in their community. We want kids to know what things were like 60 years ago."
The museum pays tribute to Dunedin residents who risked their lives for the country and displays their pictures on a wall for visitors. Below rests a book detailing their military service. It was dedicated to the 10 Dunedin soldiers who lost their lives during the war.
In the back of the book, there are addresses and telephone numbers for people who want to talk to those who survived the war.
Robert Tharin, who coordinated the veterans' book, was one of the lucky ones. He was a student at the University of Florida and had a deferment to complete college. But as he saw his friends go off to war, he figured he didn't want to stay home and simply be a civilian. He served in the Army Air Forces in Burma from Nov. 15, 1944, to Jan. 6, 1946, as an airplane mechanic, and he will never forget what jogged his memory when he finally came home.
"I smelled all these orange blossoms," he said. "It just came over me, and I just thanked the good Lord I got back in one piece."
If you go:
The Dunedin on the Homefront exhibit will be on display through June 14 at the Dunedin Historical Museum, 341 Main St. Museum hours are 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The exhibit is free, but a $2 donation is suggested for adults. Call 736-1176.
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