American Legion museum curator Bill Payne discusses Saugerties historical display

Curator Bill Payne at the exhibit

Lamouree Hackett Post 72, American Legion, has been awarded $2000 to upgrade its exhibit of World War I by the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission and the Pritzker Military Museum and Library. The Saugerties post is unusual among recipients in that it does not have a physical memorial remembering World War I. It was granted the award to create a World War I display in its museum in the post’s building on Partition Street.

Curator Bill Payne said the museum was kept open when the Memorial Wall replica was in Saugerties. The new display commemorates the centennial of World War I. All the items on display were contributed by veterans of the war, including Payne’s grandfather, whose uniform is on display.

Flap about Nazi flags

Two captured German flags from World War II, donated by American soldiers who captured them, have aroused controversy on Facebook, In a statement on the post’s Facebook Page, Payne refers to Jaime Fine, who posted in a Facebook conversation that these flags would be repugnant to Jews, who suffered so greatly from the Nazis.

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“Fine is right to be offended by the symbols of Nazism; they represent hatred, oppression, international aggression and genocide,” wrote Payne. “And that of course is the point. The context of the display is that these are trophies of war captured in combat by American troops from Saugerties, who gave up their youth to go and destroy that evil regime in World War II. They are on display to honor and remember the soldiers who donated them to our museum as a commemoration of our hard-won victory in World War II.”

Payne noted that the flags remind us of the horrors of the Third Reich. “It was not for nothing that our fathers (my father among them) had to wipe out that Reich by force of arms.” Flying higher than the Nazi flags is a huge American flag, in fact Payne’s grandfather’s burial flag. The American flag hangs from the ceiling, almost acting as a divider between two sections of the museum. The Nazi flags hang on a side wall, significantly lower than the American flag.
Next to it is a swastika cutout, with the names of the servicemen who contributed it. American veterans wanted the symbol displayed, Payne said. There’s further local context. “Although this grant was intended as a restoration grant for World War I memorials, Lisa Polay, drawing heavily on Alan Greczvnski and Karlynn Knaust Ella’s ‘A Small Town’s Contribution to the Great War,’ and historical information provided by Michael Sullivan Smith, crafted a persuasive and compelling proposal requesting funds to create our World War I memorial for our veterans,” the post website explained. Also credited is Bob Chapelle, who has worked to renovate the collection, and Payne, for his knowledge of the collection.

Local post formed in 1919

The American Legion was formed after the war in 1918 by American soldiers in Paris, Payne said. The Saugerties post was one of the earliest, Payne said. The post number, 72, is an indication of how early in the legion’s history it was formed.

The display includes English, German and some American weapons, though this country entered the war with few manufacturing facilities for war materials. While the displays of military equipment, uniforms and flags is the most visible part of the collection, letters, diaries and written records contributed by veterans are the most important to the understanding of our history. “We never throw anything out,” Payne said, holding up the minutes of the first meeting of the post on July 8, 1919. He credited historian Audrey Klinkenberg with transcribing the handwritten minutes.

Visitors are greeted by a poster created by Victor DeJorio, which shows a man and woman wearing American Legion caps. The text says The American Legion and Ladies Auxiliary Unit welcome you, with Post 72 in smaller type below it.

What’s in the historical exhibit

The museum was started about 40 years ago, and “at that time, many of our members were World War I veterans,” Payne said. Many of them contributed items to the museum, “and now, with the centennial, we are exhibiting them in one spot.”

In addition to rifles and bayonets, the exhibit includes such everyday items as shaving kits and cups. There are items from America’s allies as well as captured German equipment. Gas masks are a reminder, and digging tools recall the trench warfare that characterized the conflict. 

English weapons and equipment are part of the display. Payne noted that his grandfather, who was born in Ireland, fought in the English army during the First World War.

Payne explained how helmets were treated to prevent them from reflecting light, giving away the positions of the soldiers. While the paint on it was wet, the helmet would be dipped in sawdust, giving it a dull coat. “It would make your head look like a piece of mud rather than something shining in the dark in the moonlight.”

Among the less military items is a portable typewriter donated by Cliff Snyder, whose uncle had been a company clerk. “When the kids come up, I tell them that that’s a World War I laptop.”

In 1919 the New York State archives asked people of influence in their communities to gather written reminiscences of the war. Reverend J.F. Wemple took on the job for Saugerties. He became ill, and did not complete the job. But the letters he collected were stored in the post’s attic. Alan Dzerzhinsky found them, and with former town historian Knaust Elia, annotated them. “Alan actually got an award from the national American Legion for having found this archive.” The Legion’s collection also holds a complete archive of Stars and Stripes newspaper, first published in World War I and still being published today.

Payne’s “American grandfather” served during World War I in the 33rd New York Division. Serving in the same division was composer Irving Berlin. While there’s no record of his grandfather ever having met Berlin, “His nickname was God Bless America Duffy, so there is some connection.”

The annotations on the display are not yet completed, Payne said, but the information, including the names of contributors, are on file and will be added. The museum is open only on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, but the post is discussing opening one day per week.

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