Smithsonian in Wartime

Find out how the Smithsonian shared its expertise, staff, and funds during times of national crisis.

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WWII: Staff Supporting the War Effort

When the men and women of the Smithsonian heard the call to duty in World War II, they again took up the call as they had during World War I. Secretaries Charles G. Abbot and Alexander Wetmore provided leadership that brought the Smithsonian’s resources to the aid of the nation, while safeguarding its primary mission: the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Once again, Smithsonian staff responded to the crisis and brought their knowledge and skills into service for their country. 

Deignan and Ripley Collecting in Ceylon

Image of S. Dillon Ripley (second on the left) and four other men in Ceylon

The staff of the Smithsonian supported the war efforts along with the rest of the country.  Men from all walks of life, including some of the men of the Smithsonian, volunteered for wartime service. Smithsonian employees such as Herbert G. Deignan, an ornithologist and curator in the Division of Birds, and future Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, assistant curator in the Division of Birds, volunteered for service during the war. The Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, stationed them in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, where they continued their bird collecting and maintained contact with the Smithsonian. Both knew the geography and languages of the region, having traveled widely in the South Pacific before the war. While working in Ceylon, they both continued their ornithological passions. Deignan and Ripley enjoyed bird watching in their free time and were avid collectors. Ripley donated 354 bird skins to the Smithsonian collections in just one year and Deignan sent back several hundred specimens, including: bird skins, shells and barnacles, mammals, insects, reptiles, snails and worms.1 Their efforts seem to be limited only by the difficulties of collecting in the field – preparing skins, fending off pests, and storing specimens. Even knowing what exactly to collect was a problem. Far from the scholarly resources usually available to scientists, Deignan had little idea of what species were rare or common. Especially when collecting outside his field – shells, insects, or mammals for example – he had to rely on his best judgment in his collecting choices. 

Smithsonian Staff who Served

Paul Garber in Airplane While wartime activities took over the attention of the Smithsonian, thirty-three members of the staff joined the armed services (see pg. 24). Of these, administrative and operating staff made up the majority of the Smithsonian’s enlisted men as only ten of those men were scientific staff. Even before America entered the war, several staff members felt called to take a furlough for military duty and joined the armed services. These Smithsonian employees were committed to service not only at the Smithsonian but also to the nation as they took an active part in world events.

G. Arthur Cooper and C. Lewis Gazin Charles Lewis Gazin left the Smithsonian to serve in the armed forces in July of 19422 and returned after the war to have a long career in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology. He was still in the department in 1961 as they opened up a new exhibit in the Paleontology Hall.3 Frank A. Taylor, who had also worked in the Natural History Building for the Bureau of War Risk Insurance [Link to WWI Buildings page] after high school, was another Smithsonian employee who left the museum to serve. Upon his return, he became the curator of the Division of Engineering and eventually the Director of the Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History. His wartime experience refreshed his outlook and inspired him to ready the Smithsonian for the future with his work in the Exhibits Modernization Program.4 Paul Garber, an aviation enthusiast and a preparator in the Division of Mechanical Technology, also put his expertise to work for the armed forces during the war. He worked with the Navy and built recognition models of enemy planes to teach pilots, gunners and observers how to identify the enemy planes. He returned to the Smithsonian after the war and became the first curator of the National Air Museum (now National Air and Space Museum), founded on August 12, 1946.5

Frank Taylor with Chinese War Chariots Not only enlisted men contributed to the war effort. Secretary Alexander Wetmore was elected Secretary in 1945 and steered the Smithsonian through the turbulent waters of the end of the war. Both as a biologist and an administrator, he guided the Smithsonian through challenging times and made sure it was ready for the future when the war ended. Under both Secretary Abbot and Wetmore, many of the remaining staff members in Washington devoted all of their time to war projects assigned by the Army, Navy or war agencies. The Smithsonian’s wartime policy was “to use all its resources to aid in winning the war, while continuing insofar as possible the recording and publishing of essential scientific observations and curatorial work as necessary for the proper care of the National collections.”6 Countless unnamed Smithsonian staff made possible projects like the War Background Series and the publications of the Ethnogeographic Board, and played a vital role in the information and resources the Smithsonian was able to provide the armed services. 

Conclusion

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Smithsonian staff focused their energies on the war effort – by enlisting in the armed forces or sharing their expertise with war agencies.  They returned from the war with new perspectives and dedicated themselves to a renovated National Museum.

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FOOTNOTES

Pamela Henson “Smithsonian Goes to War,” in Science and the Pacific War: science and survival in the Pacific, 1939-1945, Roy M. MacLeod (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000), 40. Return to text

2 1943 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1944), 24. Return to text

3 10845G. Arthur Cooper and C. Lewis Gazin, 1961, by Unknown, Photographic Print, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9524, Box 1 G. Arthur Cooper Oral History Interviews, MNH-601D. Return to text

4 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9512, Taylor, Frank A, (Frank Augustus), 1903- interviewee, Frank A. Taylor Interviews, 371. Return to text

5 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9592, Garber, Paul Edward, 1899-1992. interviewee, Paul Edward Garber Interviews Finding Aid. Return to text

6 1943 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1944), 2. Return to text