Mastering the interactive gizmo that simulated the steps of building a Liberty Ship was a cinch for Dana Beckham.
In no time she was explaining how to work the exhibit’s flashing screens to other visitors to the World War II Home Front Museum, which celebrated its grand opening Saturday morning at the historic Coast Guard Station on St. Simons Island’s Coast Guard Beach. And why shouldn’t this young lady know the goings-on of the shipyards on the Brunswick River during the 1940s?
Beckham has heard the story at least a hundred times from her 101-year-old grandmother, Ida Mae Lawson. Mrs. Lawson worked at the shipyards during the war years, joining thousands of other women and men who produced 85 of the valuable cargo ships between 1943-45.
“It’s all still there with her,” said Beckham, one of about 300 who attended a special ceremony and tour of the museum before it opened to the public later that afternoon. “She still talks about it. And I’ve heard it a lot growing up.”
The museum features 3,000 square feet of exhibit space spread across two buildings at the Coast Guard Station complex, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum covers the multifaceted activities that unfolded here in the Golden Isles during the war years, from military training and Naval airship patrols to civilian shipbuilding, volunteering and sacrifice. Other exhibits at the museum include interactive media that allows visitors to test their acumen at plane spotting, radar-guided air support and grocery shopping with WWII-era rationing points. The story told by the museum’s many artifacts, displays photos is narrated by the personal reminiscences of folks like Mrs. Lawson who lived it.
The museum was developed by the Coastal Georgia Historical Society in conjunction with Gallagher and Associates, a designer of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, La.
Perhaps fittingly, Mrs. Lawson joined historical society curator Mimi Rogers in christening the museum. In keeping with the sendoff that newly-completed Liberty Ships received before being launched into the Brunswick River way back when, Rogers and the plucky centenarian broke a champagne bottle over a tower structure on the museum grounds.
The museum will ensure that the fascinating story of war on the home front here in the Golden Isles is preserved for future generations, said Sherri Jones, executive director of the historical society.
“Remarkably, in this community the war became shockingly real,” Jones said. “And the contributions that Coastal Georgia made is as concrete as any military engagement overseas. This community will now be able to tell that extraordinary story. Not only for our community, but for thousands of visitors across the nation. They will learn how coastal Georgia came together and helped win a global war.”
Recognition is long overdue for the contributions of those on the home front who toiled to win the war, said historian Robert Citino, author of numerous historical books and the senior historian at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
American industry supplied not only American troops with munitions, vehicles and supplies, but also our allies, from Great Britain to Russia.
The output of this nation alone dwarfed that of Germany and Japan, he said.
“Victory ended on the battle front, but it began on the home front, in places like St. Simons Island,” he said.
Because men eligible for military service were away, the brunt of the hard work in those American factories and shipyards was borne by women who would come to personify the image of Rosie the Riveter. Women like Mrs. Lawson and Laree Hires.
Mrs. Hires, 94, was a welder at the J.A. Jones Shipyards on the Brunswick River. She paused inside the museum Saturday to have her photo taken beside a photo of her sister, 96-year-old Carobeth Highsmith of Jesup. A young Mrs. Highsmith smiles from inside a welder’s hat in the display at the museum. Mrs. Hires’s other older sister, the late Nannelle Bacon, also worked at the shipyards.
“I welded, and I love it,” said Mrs. Hires. “I was right out of high school. I think it’s such a tribute. A lot of folks don’t even know what went on here, or what all unfolded.”
Well, younger folks like Beckham have a pretty good handle on what took place here during the war years. But not everybody has a hometown hero like Mrs. Lawson for a grandmother to tell them how it was.
That is what the museum is for, to introduce this inspiring moment in local history to new generations. Beckham thinks it is long overdue.
“It’s important to the community,” the Brunswick resident said. “Her contributions and the rest of those who contributed to World War II really needs to be told. And I’m so overjoyed that she was selected to have her story told as part of this. That is a legacy for our family, and an honor for our family.”