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70 Years Later – WWII & Oregon

Oregon Historical Society exhibition shines a light on WWII’s impact on the state.

Presented by October 29, 2015

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World War II is often considered the most pivotal event of the twentieth century. Even the most history-averse among us have a basic understanding of the war from a global perspective, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, to the horrors of the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb. However, far fewer have heard of the Japanese balloon bomb in Bly, Oregon, or the creation and subsequent extinction of the city of Vanport, or of the Kaiser shipyards and the long-term impacts on childcare and healthcare that were created as a result of World War II.

These are the stories that prompted the Oregon Historical Society’s newest original exhibition World War II: A World at War, A State Transformed. On display through December 7, 2015, this exhibition tells both the global and local stories of the Second World War, drawing on the archives of the Oregon Historical Society, the Mark Family Collection, and museums and historical societies across the state.

Visitors to the exhibit are immediately greeted by a working Enigma Machine, the Nazi encrypting device featured in the recent Oscar-nominated film The Imitation Game. Next to the Enigma Machine, two touchscreens invite visitors to play a codebreaking game, just one of the many hands-on elements peppered throughout the exhibit. Hidden in the back corner of the exhibit is a screen showing a WWII era newsreel. At the time, a movie theater was the only place where news footage could be viewed. From an interactive “war table” for mapping out battles to uniforms of General Patton and Eisenhower, the global section of the exhibit takes your high school history class to a whole new level.

What can’t be missed when visiting this exhibit is the Oregon section, a poignant reminder of the transformative impact that WWII had on the state. The Second World War was fought on both the battlefield and the home front. Women entered the workforce for the first time, “Rosie the Riveters” building ships that were critical to the war effort. The Bracero farm labor program was formed to increase crop production, and thousands of

African Americans migrated to Portland for job opportunities in the shipyards. However, while this boom in industry diversified the state, racism was still rampant, a subject that is a focus within the exhibit. One section is dedicated to the incarceration of Japanese Americans and younger visitors are left to consider what it was like for American citizens to be forcibly removed from their homes.

The Oregon Historical Society has also hosted a range of lectures and events throughout the exhibit’s run, from lectures on the Kaiser shipyards, pacifism during WWII, and talks with veterans and survivors of the Holocaust. Some of these events have been recorded and are available on the OHS YouTube page – make sure to check out a recent History Pub event (a monthly program at McMenamins Kennedy School) that featured a panel of Oregonians who worked on the home front during the war.

Now that Portland is starting to look a bit more like herself with blustery days and that much needed precipitation, an afternoon at the museum is a perfect fall outing. The Oregon Historical Society is located in downtown Portland on the south park blocks and is open seven days a week and admission is $11, but it is free every day for Multnomah County residents. Also, thanks to the generous support of Columbia Sportswear, all veterans and active duty military and their families are admitted to the museum for free through the close of the exhibit on December 7. If you do not have a chance to visit, be sure to spend some time exploring Oregon’s World War II history on The Oregon Encyclopedia, a website run by the Oregon Historical Society with over 1,500 peer-reviewed entries on the state’s history.