By Debby Woodin
JOPLIN, Mo. —
A young brunette smiled for a photograph taken at her station in a World War II manufacturing plant.
Not long after the shot, 19-year-old Norma Jean Baker dyed her hair and moved to Hollywood to become the blond bombshell immortalized in movies.
“A lot of people are unaware that Marilyn Monroe started out as a ‘Rosie the Riveter,’” said Allen Shirley, president of the Joplin Historical Society and a collector of history relics, including the photo of the teenage Monroe.
A display about the “Rosie the Riveter” movie and poster promotions during the war — showing women supporting the war effort by holding down jobs traditionally done by men — is among the exhibits about World War II owned by Shirley.
He will unveil his collection Saturday at the Joplin Museum Complex in Schifferdecker Park. An opening ceremony is set for 10 a.m.
Another display focuses on WASPs, those female pilots who flew aircraft from the plants where they were made to the military bases where they were stationed or shipped out to overseas destinations.
One of the members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots was assigned to tow a large piece of sheet metal that was used as a target in the training of artillerymen.
“That was a gutsy job,” Shirley said. “The contributions of women in the war effort are irrefutable.”
Another exhibit features autographs of eight of the pilots who served in the Tuskegee Airmen’s “Red Tails.”
That was America’s first black military air corps. The U.S. military trained the pilots at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where an aeronautical program was in place before the war. It was the institute where George Washington Carver, who grew up near Diamond, had taught.
The story of Doolittle’s Raiders, who flew to fame by bombing Tokyo in 1942 in retaliation for the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, also is recorded. There were 80 airmen divided into 14 crews who took on the dangerous mission. Shirley has autographs of 12 of those crews.
Iconic photographs such as the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima and the “Sailor’s Kiss” photograph taken when the war ended are captured in displays.
Though for decades it was not know what sailor was shown kissing a nurse in the famous Life magazine portrait, the mystery was finally solved.
“It took 60 years and digital technology to learn who that sailor was,” Shirley said. His display features autographs of three candidates; one of those men eventually was determined to be the one because of a scar on his wrist that was visible in the digitized and enlarged images.
There also are artifacts recalling the horror of the Nazi concentration camps.
“You can’t talk about World War II without talking about the Holocaust,” Shirley said. His exhibit contains pieces of two prison uniforms worn in Polish concentration camps.
“The Nazis tried to get rid of all of them,” he said of the uniforms, “but a few made it out” as evidence of the camps.
Shirley’s pieces of cloth are those of the imprinted prisoner number. One has a green triangle beside the number that denotes the prisoner was a criminal.
The exhibit also features a Jewish prayer book that someone had been able to hold onto in the Auschwitz camp.
“It was obviously very well hidden,” Shirley said. “If a Nazi guard had found it, the owner would have been dead.”
Shirley’s study of World War II is made even more personal for him because his father served three years and seven months, involved in most of the major European and African campaigns. He also was sent to the Pacific theater but was discharged shortly after the reassignment.
Shirley buys the artifacts for his collection from 10 reputable dealers.
“It’s not a cheap hobby, but it’s a necessary one because if we don’t preserve it, it will be lost,” he said of the history portrayed by the items.
“History is important because it gives us the track of how we got to where we are today.”
JOPLIN RESIDENT ALLEN SHIRLEY has previously shown his collections relating to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and the Titanic. His World War II exhibit will be on display until Aug. 30.