A powerful new exhibit on military history opened on Veterans Day at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh reports.
Andrew Carman of Jimtown, Kentucky was born in 1895. In 1916, during the First World War, he was drafted by the U.S. Army. An African-American, Carman was not allowed to mix with white units from the United States. So his engineering division, the famed “Harlem Hellfighters,” fought alongside the French Army, where they experienced terrifying bombardments during trench warfare.
“And of course, you just take a chill,” said Carman. “You just shake, shake all the time until, you know, you just come to yourself enough that you decide to pull yourself together. In fact, I rubbed my knees to try to get myself together.”
Wounded in combat, Carman waited 63 years before finally receiving his Purple Heart. Before his death in 1983, Carman shared his war experiences with historians at Murray State University. And now his story is being told in Frankfort at a new exhibit called “Kentucky Military Treasures.”
“The treasures are the artifacts themselves, but the stories behind them is what drove the artifact selection in this show.”
That’s Tony Curtis of the Kentucky History Center in downtown Frankfort, where 200 years of Kentucky military artifacts, and the human stories behind them, are on display.
“They all have a tie to Kentucky,” said Curtis, “whether it’s through an actual item that was used by a Kentuckian in a conflict or an item that was invented by a Kentuckian for use in the military conflicts.”
Like the Thompson Machine Gun, invented by Brigadier General John T. Thompson of Newport, Kentucky.
“We have a early model 1921 Thompson Machine Gun,” said Curtis, “as well as a model 1911 revolver, which he was instrumental in developing the cartridges and the ammo that went into that.”
In all, there are more than 100 Kentucky military artifacts strategically placed around the 4,000 square foot exhibition hall, including civil war swords, saddles, bugles, uniforms, Medals of Honor, rifles, canons and pistols. Bringing the items to life are the human stories of their owners, like Martha and Marcus Davis of Harlan County, who both served in Vietnam.
“Martha was a nurse who was trained in the United Mine Workers hospitals, from Evarts, Kentucky,” said Tony Curtis. “She goes into the Navy, becomes a nurse and serves. Her brother Marcus is drafted into the Army. He serves, but he’s killed in action in 1970.
“They were out in the boonies,” said Martha Davis. “And, one guy in front triggered a booby trap, which is what killed my brother. Hit him. And so he didn’t die right away, but they had to carry him back somewhere to get on the helicopter – the loading zone.”
Along with the artifacts and oral histories of Kentuckians like Martha and Marcus Davis, visitors can enjoy brief plays, involving actors interacting with the exhibits. Greg Hardison is the museum’s theatre director.
“This particular play is called Theatre of War: Unresolved Conflict of Vietnam,” said Hardison. “And it takes place right in the exhibit, surrounded by the artifacts. The artifacts themselves become characters in the play, representing the different perspectives of history.”
“Kentucky Military Treasures” is expected to have a six-month run at the Kentucky History Center. The artifacts, stories and plays in the exhibit cover conflicts ranging from the War of 1812 to Afghanistan and Iraq. For an online preview, go to www.history.ky.gov