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Pioneers Museum opens WWII exhibit honoring POWs

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'My first childhood memory of him was as a 7-year-old, right here in Colorado Springs."

That's Whitney Galbraith talking about his father, and his arrival by train to the old Santa Fe Railway station on East Pikes Peak Avenue. It was November 1945, and Whitney hadn't seen his dad, Col. Nicoll F. Galbraith, since May 1941, when Whitney, his two siblings and his mom were evacuated from the Philippines to the Springs.

Col. Galbraith was to stay on the island. When the Philippines fell in May 1942, he was one of the higher-ranking officers present. Charged with finding another colonel and convincing him to surrender, as ordered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Galbraith trekked the jungle of northern Luzon with a Japanese escort. He carried two pocket flags, one American, one Japanese, waving them as needed to make the journey safely.

Today, those two flags lay on display next to each other at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. They're part of So Far From Home: The American POW Experience in WWII, an exhibit that uses never-before-exhibited items from a handful of private collections, as well as from the Air Force Academy's Special Collection, to tells stories relating to survival in impossible circumstances.

Setting up camp

An Army green, pristine and wrinkle-free aviator jacket that belonged to Capt. John Bennett hangs on a mannequin under grey walls lined with spirals of faux-barbed wire. An escape map sewn into the jacket's lining dangles from a concealed pocket, the ink remarkably vibrant and the paper still a crisp whitish grey.

Museum director and city cultural services manager Matt Mayberry points from the map to the jacket's buttons, which are actually miniature compasses. Bennett, who was shot down over Germany in October 1942, ran a secret one-room compass factory while at the German POW camp Stalag Luft III — compasses were crucial to escapees, as were false identification card photos, which he took with a camera he hid inside a loaf of stale bread.

Mayberry then moves to a homemade cooking stove crafted out of cans from Red Cross care packages.

"One of the things that's amazing about [these POWs] is the way they tried to maintain a common life and a routine," he says.

The stove sits on a tall, skinny bookshelf next to wooden bunk beds in a replica German POW bunker. On a shelf above, a framed photograph of a soldier and his girl is a poignant reminder of wartime woes beyond the battlefield.

But the most moving story to Mayberry centers around a framed American flag. The approximately 5-by-8-foot flag, with the last row of stars askew, was made for the American POWs at Stalag Luft III by their German captors. A photograph shows a POW burial at the camp with this flag draped over the casket.

"It's an amazing thing to think about," Mayberry says, "that in wartime you would make a flag for your enemy." A caption explains that the Germans honored the efforts of American POWs to accord full military honors to the dead. The flag points to the empathy of German soldiers at the camp.

Close to home

What Col. Galbraith experienced in his 3½ years as a "guest of the Emperor" was harsher.

"The Japanese were not at all sympathetic to the Americans showing their nationality and loyalty," Whitney Galbraith says.

The museum's re-created Japanese POW room shows no sign of an American presence. A low, Japanese-style bed covered with bamboo matting is protected by a green mosquito net, all under white square flags hanging on a string above the bed.

On a display table nearby are items belonging to Col. Galbraith, including boxer shorts that he fashioned out of a flour sack. A ceramic bowl bears his prisoner number, "1653," painted in black.

Col. Galbraith kept journals, but concealed them. In August 1945, he wrote in one of them that he and fellow soldiers brought his American flag out from hiding — the same flag he had used en route to the POW camp — only after he was rescued.

"He states that he probably would have been executed if they found that on him," says his son, who adds that the chronology of the rescue mission itself "is so incredibly intense it would make a Hollywood story that nobody would have to invent."

That mission ended years of the worst kind of uncertainty for he and his family. For most of the time Col. Galbraith was a POW, he was moved from camp to camp, unable to communicate with his family.

Mayberry says this speaks to what makes this exhibit "so meaningful still, especially in this community."

"Any given day we may have hundreds of soldiers returning from Afghanistan or Iraq," he says. "And all of them have gone through terrible things and are trying to figure out how to go back to their normal lives."

The museum will also share the experiences of German POWs at Camp Carson and Japanese Americans imprisoned at Amache in separate exhibits to open in September.

Mayberry says it's important to tell the whole story "so people understand the context" and see the whole picture of World War II. The stories told through these three exhibits "happened both abroad and right here in our own backyard," he says.

The exhibit runs through May 2011, along with World War II-themed activities including a lecture series, fundraisers, a USO Dance featuring former Air Force Academy Wings of Blues musicians and a film festival at Stargazers Theatre.

scene@csindy.com

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