Exhibit details lives of Virginians lost in service to country
by Steven Johnson, Staff Writer
John Hildebrand intended to be a singing cowboy, just like the golden-throated idols he listened to on the radio growing up in Craigsville, Va., and he let his parents know about his ambition in letters he penned from military duty.
The letters stopped on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Navy sailor, 19, was among more than 100 men aboard the USS California who died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His remains were not identified until after the war and the only remaining possession of the singing cowboy was a set of keys.
For years, Hildebrand was just one of nearly 12,000 Virginia veterans whose names were etched on glass and stone walls at the Virginia War Memorial. Now, a new exhibit is personalizing Hildebrand and 31 other veterans who lost their lives in combat.
“One of the missions of the War Memorial is to obtain more information on those who are on the walls,” says Curator Jesse Smith. “When you see a face that’s associated with the name on a shrine, you humanize it. You get to see the person and know a little bit about their life.”
‘LIVES WORTH KNOWING’
The “Who They Were: Lives Worth Knowing” exhibit opened on Veteran’s Day at the memorial, which overlooks the James River in downtown Richmond. It has received glowing reviews for the presentation of its subjects through personal photos, letters and other items.
Smith says the idea for the exhibit has been coursing through his mind for several years. But enforced remote work during the pandemic gave him an opportunity to develop it fully.
The 32 service personnel represent a geographic and demographic cross-section of Virginia casualties from World War II to the war on terrorism, reflective of the memorial’s mission to serve all Virginians from the Cumberland Gap to the Chesapeake Bay.
But the defining characteristic is the quality of the personal stories. In one case, Smith’s team sent a circa-1940 guitar owned by Staff Sgt. Penn Crawford, a bomber pilot and single parent, for fine-tuning by Joe Montague, a museum volunteer and guitarist.
The result: an audio track of “You Are My Sunshine” played on that same guitar against a backdrop of the story of Crawford, shot down en route to Romania in 1944.
“That was the song that he would sing to his kids,” says Smith, recalling the reaction when Crawford’s granddaughter visited the exhibit. “She had never actually heard the guitar play. So now hearing the guitar play the song that her father used to know from his father; it was really powerful.”
Like good detectives, War Memorial researchers followed up on every hint or clue to put together “Lives Worth Knowing.” Smith says the memorial has benefitted from family donations of mementoes and personal artifacts — they’re always encouraged — and has added internet searches, yellowed clippings, military databases and old-fashioned footwork.
“Sometimes, it’s a shotgun approach to see, ‘Who was this guy?’” he says. “One of the most rewarding things is when we’ve had a family member come by and when they started reading about their loved one, they went, ‘I didn’t know that. Oh, wow. I didn’t know that he went to this place or was there.”
The free exhibit will run through 2022.