Service and Sacrifice: World War II—A Shared Experience

July 4, 2023 - January 5, 2025

With over 16 million Americans serving during World War II, every single person in the United States was touched in some way by the war. The new special exhibit Service and Sacrifice offers personal glimpses of a few of the many Americans who served, including members of the Kennedy family and the untold stories of historically marginalized communities, including women and people of color.

John F. Kennedy and crewmen of the PT-109 in the Solomon Islands during World War II: 

Back row: Allan Webb, Leon Drawdy, Edgar Mauer, Edmund Drewitch, John Maguire, John F. Kennedy

Front row: Charles Harris, Maurice Kowal, Andrew Kirksey, Lenny Thom

PC100, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Lt.(jg) John F. Kennedy and Ensign Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., circa May, 1942.

PP83, Turgeon Studios Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

“Easter morning, T/5 William E. Thomas and Pfc. Joseph Jackson will roll specially prepared eggs on Hitler's lawn," 1945

531253, National Archives and Records Administration

Avenge December 7th poster, 1942, Bernard Perlin (American, 1918-2014)

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, gift of Adriance Memorial Library

Marine Unit Navajo code talkers Corporal Henry Bahe Jr. and Private George H. Kirk in Bougainville (Papau), New Guinea, December 1943

127-MN-57875, National Archives and Records Administration

WASPs Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn carrying parachutes, their B-17, Pistol Packin' Mama, in the background

National Archives and Records Administration

Members of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, St. Die Area, France, 1944.  Pictured L to R: SSgt Yukio Okutsu, Pfc Shigeru Suekuni, Sgt Albert Ichihara, TSgt Michio Takata, 1st Lt Joseph Hill.

111-SC-341438, National Archives and Records Administration

They Did Their Part Poster

U.S. Office of War Information, 1943

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, gift of the Adriance Memorial Library

A Divided America

Who is responsible for changing our national policy from one of neutrality and independence to one of entanglement in European affairs? - Charles Lindbergh

When war first broke out, opinion in the United States was sharply divided. Not wanting to get involved in another European conflict after World War I, many supported isolationism. Major figures, including Kennedy family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., were alarmingly in favor of the authoritarian regimes sweeping Europe. That changed on December 7, 1941: the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor knocked down all isolationist walls. The United States would join the war.

The Kennedys and The War

I am rapidly reaching a point where every one of my peers will be in uniform and I do not intend to be the only one among them wearing coward’s tweeds. - John F. Kennedy

For the Kennedy children who were of age, enlisting was a foregone conclusion: eldest son Joe Jr. joined the Navy as a pilot. John F. Kennedy, initially deemed unfit for military service because of his health, was able to secure a position with his father’s help leading a crew on the ill-fated PT 109. Their sister Kathleen followed suit with her peers and volunteered for the Red Cross in England to be near her future husband.

Like many families, the Kennedys were irrevocably changed by the war: Joe Jr. and his copilot Wilford J. Willy were killed in action in a secret bombing mission to France, Jack became a war hero after his PT boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer, and four months after marrying her husband, Kathleen was widowed when he was killed in action on the battlefront.

New Opportunities, Same Barriers

For two and one half years I endangered my life, only to return to our native country and state and be denied the basic things for which we fought. - Technician Fifth Grade Medgar Evers

For many the war opened opportunities where very few had existed before, although barriers to full equal treatment that existed on the home front persisted on the war front. For Americans of color, service in a war to “preserve democracy” was an ironic counterpoint to the racism and bigotry at home. Women who were able to work in different capacities within the Armed Forces for the first time were greeted with hostility by their male counterparts.

But for all those involved, the war opened different avenues and changed perceptions. As a result, countless servicepeople went on to shape and change post-war American society.

Exhibit Highlights

Service and Sacrifice features photos, documents, artifacts, and film footage from over a dozen different museum and private collections, many of which have never been exhibited, including:

  • John F. Kennedy’s U.S. Navy dress jacket, tie and hat
  • Personal correspondence between members of the Kennedy family
  • Photographs by Ansel Adams of Japanese American internees at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California
  • TBX-8 portable short-range radio issued to the Department of the Navy used by Native American code talkers
  • Yeoman 3rd class winter and summer WAVES dress uniforms worn by Gladys Shapira
  • Fragment of the Liberator B-24 drone piloted by Wilford Willy and Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.
  • The flight suit worn by Tuskegee airman Woodrow W. Crockett
  • The blue star service flag hung by Private Sadao Munemori’s mother in her barracks living quarters at Manzanar War Relocation Center

Service and Sacrifice is made possible in part by generous support from the Isermann Family Foundation.

Isermann Family Foundation