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D-Day exhibit depicts what Arkansans died for

By Jennifer Nixon

This article was published May 22, 2014 at 2:32 a.m.

The Jacksonville Museum of Military History is expanding its World War II European Theater exhibit area.

Jacksonville Museum of Military History

North Hospital Circle, Jacksonville

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday (Closed Memorial Day)

(501) 241-1943

It's a weekend of barbecues and boating -- celebrating the coming of summer laziness. And, of course, there's Riverfest. But in Jacksonville, there's a special celebration acknowledging what Memorial Day is supposed to be about.

The Jacksonville Museum of Military History has been open since 2005, displaying vehicles, weapons, uniforms and other articles from various U.S. wars. But now, with the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasions (June 6, 1944) approaching, they're expanding their World War II European Theater exhibit area in a way that, they hope, will put a more personal, accessible spin on the war.

The official exhibit opening starts at 11 a.m. Saturday and will be followed by a hamburger lunch. The museum will be closed Memorial Day, but the exhibit is a permanent part of the museum's collection.

The exhibit has always included displays of weapons from the war as well as a U.S. soldier's uniform and a Waffen SS camouflage uniform from 1944.

Some of the most compelling artifacts, though, have been the personal items soldiers and sailors would have carried, like a complete shaving kit.

But the expansion examines the conflict in a way that brings the war closer to home. Exhibit builder, researcher and volunteer Robert Houston selected seven Arkansans who participated in the D-Day landings. He chose most of them at random during a trip to an American cemetery in Normandy, then added a Coast Guardsman and a sailor so they wouldn't all be Army men. Five of the seven Arkansans died on D-Day: Gunner's Mate First Class James Everette Atterberry of Fort Smith; Pvt. Edsel A. Malone of Okolona; Maj. George Shell Grant of Prairie Township; Technician Fifth Grade Henry B. Maguffee of Salem; and Pfc. Isaac W. Wright of De Queen. One other, Pvc. Walter W. Jones of Blytheville, died in 1945, and the seventh, Pharmacist's Mate First Class Albert James Antoine of Hot Springs, survived until 2005.

Each Arkansan will have a memorial and an accompanying biography, something that Houston has been working on through research and meetings with the men's families, some of whom are just learning about their long-lost relative. The biography of Malone is the most complete and Houston hopes to expand the others over time.

"I want to make these guys as human and personable as possible so people realize these were just normal men who went off and fought," he says.

Some liked to hunt or fish. One was a talented musician. Grant was the son of a college president and likely would have followed in his father's footsteps as a prominent educator.

Houston has also added new mannequins to represent the airborne and seaborne forces, a weathered hedgerow gate to represent the hedgerows in Normandy, and a re-creation of the beach obstacles the men encountered.

During his trip to Normandy, Houston collected some sand from Omaha Beach and that sand will be added to the displays, glassed in to protect them from young visitors who have occasionally tried to play in the sand.

"To me, that's very hallowed ground," Houston says.

The entire D-Day exhibit is a special project for Houston.

"Historically, that was the turning point of the war in Europe," he says. "I'm very passionate about the Normandy invasion because I've been there and I've seen what they saw and what they were facing. It was pretty formidable."

Houston hopes that by visiting the museum, visitors might get an idea of what Arkansans went through and gave up in the conflict.

"I'd really like them to realize that freedom costs," Houston says. "We're capable of a lot better stuff than we tend to churn out. Even though most of these guys didn't make it, they all went in there with hopes of winning the war. Don't forget who came before you."

Weekend on 05/22/2014

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