Books, Family History, History Class, Life, Photos, Uncategorized, World War 2, Writer's Life

Preserving a Piece of History

“Troops of the US Army 2nd Infantry Division march up the bluff at the E-1 draw in the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach, Normandy, France on D+1, June 7, 1944. They are going past the German bunker, Widerstandsnest 65 (WN 65), that defended the route up the Ruquet Valley to Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer.” US Army Signal Corps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hello again, Readers, Writers, and lovers of History. Well, 2021 is here, and while it has not brought with it the magical disappearance of all of the struggles of 2020 (funny how changing the calendar never seems to do that) a New Year is traditionally a chance to look back and look forward.

I had an interesting opportunity to do both not too long ago. My husband’s grandfather’s WWII uniform came into our posession. As we knew nothing about his service, having this piece of history in our home gave us the impetus to look into the past and do some research. Looking to the future, as the uniform hadn’t been cleaned in about 75 years and was only protected by a plastic bag draped over it, we took the chance to learn how to preserve this tangible piece of our family’s history.

Finding the proper way to care for a 75 year old uniform was a bit trickier than I’d thought it would be, especially during a lockdown when I couldn’t just pop into local museums and ask questions. As I looked for answers, we did a bit of research on the uniform’s history.

The only identifying feature left on the uniform itself was its division arm patch.

This distinctive design belongs to the 2nd Infantry Division, also called the Indian Head Division for obvious reasons. According to the division association’s site, the design dates back to the First World War. A Colonel Herrington noted that the French painted unit symbols on their vehicles, and decided to host a contest to create a symbol for the 2nd division. The final result was a combination of two of the entries and it has been in use ever since.

The 2nd division—”Second to None” as its motto says—came ashore on Omaha Beach on D-Day+1 and was involved in the fighting for St. Lo and the German Ardennes offensive (Battle of the Bulge) among other engagements. It is also mentioned in the Holocaust Encyclopedia (part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website) for capturing the town of Hadamar (home of part of the Nazi Euthanasia program) as well as the Leipzig-Schönefeld camp and liberating some 1,000 prisoners from Spergau/Zöschen. (For more information, here is the link to the full article.)

While these facts were fascinating (and we are looking forward to further research) the question still remained: How could we clean and preserve the uniform, keeping this piece of family history in decent condition for the future? Besides an interesting storage aroma and some spots, moths had already snacked on the fabric and the jacket included some other materials that might cause trouble when combined with cleaning agents.

The inside of the jacket had these elastic bands. Would 75 year old elastic hold up?
I was also concerned about how the buttons would react to any cleaning agents we used. (Spoiler: they made it through, though one popped off. I still need to see if I can match “olive drab” thread to stitch it back on.)

The answer came rather randomly, with the following video showing up in my Facebook feed. (I guess all of those social media spying/tracky things have me figured out…)

If you have WWII memorabilia—from clothing, to papers, to vehicles—this video from the National WWII Museum gives advice on how to care for it ALL.

Emboldened by expert advice, my husband and began OPERATION UNIFORM CLEANUP.

First, I checked the pockets, not expecting to find anything. Surprise! Grandpa had kept some rather interesting loose change.

1941 “Wheat Penny”
1937 “Buffalo Nickle”

No, the Clares didn’t strike it rich with a find of rare coins, though both of these coin designs have their own little stories. “Wheat pennies” were minted from 1909 until 1958. They contributed to the war effort by being made of steel—rather than copper—in 1943, though this coin predates that change. “Buffalo Nickels” were part of a drive to beautify American money and to make it more distinctly American. They were struck from 1913-1938. While these wouldn’t have been rare coins in WWII, they’re a unusual today, and finding them waiting for us after 75 years in a pocket leant them extra interest.

On to the cleaning! The National WWII Museum’s video recommended avoiding dry cleaners and regular machines, so we elected to hand wash using Orvus Paste.

A brand older than the uniform- that’s a good sign, right?

We had three main pieces to wash: the light olive drab shirt and pants, and the darker olive drab jacket with all of those nice brass buttons.

We elected to start with the shirt and pants, as they seemed “safer,” with less detailing. Following the directions on the Orvus Paste, we put them in to soak, observing the results anxiously. When nothing terrible happened, we added the jacket.

As the soap only called for soaking, swishing around, and rinsing, we followed those directions. The water looked rather olive drab too when we were done. Perhaps the dye wasn’t quite color fast, or maybe it was just 75 years worth of storage grime coming out.

Drying the uniform was also a bit of a concern. Hanging clothes to dry can lead to them losing their shape, so we elected to dry it flat, using some ingenuity to get air flow into all of the layers.

The final result was a much cleaner, fresher smelling uniform. It was a bit wrinkled and I suggested following the advice of one of the Army Nurses whose memoir I had been reading. She put her uniform into her bedroll each night and slept on top of it. She received compliments on her neat creases. The suggestion was considered and rejected. For the time being it is hanging up on a nice, wide-shouldered cedar hanger (to put less stress on the shoulder seams and to keep pests away) and safely stored.

While the uniform is one more thing we are storing—and we have no shortage—I loved the chance it gave us to reconnect with our family’s history. That’s worth a little closet space.

What about you? Have any of you found ways to connect with history of late? Do you have any plans to do so in the new year?

While 2021 is off to an…interesting start, I’m still wishing you and yours a safe, happy, and healthy one. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33*


*THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

16 thoughts on “Preserving a Piece of History”

    1. Thank you so much! On a side note, I came across this quote on the 2nd Infantry Division’s page that made me think of your site: “Twice during “The Great War” the Division was commanded by Marine Corps Generals, marking the only times in U.S.Military history when Marine Corps officers commanded an Army Division.” Loads of interesting history there! I was glad that we had a chance to explore a little of it.
      Ha! Yes, I’ll admit, I googled the coins that first day, just to see…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s true. BrigGen Doyen and MajGen Lejeune commanded the division, but of course, half of the division’s infantry were Marines of the 4th Marine Brigade. LtGen Geiger commanded the US 10th Army on Okinawa during WWII … when Buckner was killed. Geiger was a Marine pilot from WWI. I love history!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s interesting to learn about the different methods of historic preservation of different objects. Thanks for sharing this. A question arises, however, that you do not address (probably because you didn’t have the object to which I refer). I have my uncle’s WWII Army service caps, one winter (dark brown) and one summer (tan). They both have the traditional brass emblems on the fronts and leather bills and chin straps. Would you know how I might go about preserving them? (They aren’t dirty.) Currently, they are wrapped in Saran Wrap and stored in a footlocker.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great question! While the video I linked might very likely have a more complete answer (I didn’t view the entire thing, just the parts that pertained to our project) here are a few things that I recall that might apply. 1. Avoid airtight storage. Plastic wrapping may not be ideal, because I recall her saying that storing things in airtight containers can create almost a mini-climate, which can cause problems. 2. If you use tissue paper/cardboard boxes, make sure they are acid free (I think the word she used was archive quality, but it has been a while since I watched it!) Tissue/boxes for gift wrap arent necessarily acid free, which could be detrimental in the long run.
      Again, these are just things I recall from the video and my memory is sometimes spotty, so don’t quote me, but I hope they’re a helpful place to sta

      Like

  2. Huzzah to a successful preservation! You’ve got me thinking about our war materials from family…I don’t have our grandfathers’ uniforms, but we do have Bo’s father’s stuff, and I wonder where he’s got that so we can preserve them for the kiddos. We have to keep these pieces of history intact, especially when they are the “tangibles” as you put it, that can help the next generation connect with who came before! xxxxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

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