ST. LOUIS • Ruth Ponciroli has lovingly saved her father’s diary from World War I along with his pocket-size prayer book, rosary and an ornate framed roster listing those like him who served in the 128th Field Artillery. Their names appear under the banner: “Defenders of Humanity.”
In tiny, meticulous print, her father, Army Sgt. Samuel H. Edelmann, wrote matter of factly of being shelled by bombs and of illness and death all around him. He wrote of arriving in the port of LeHavre in France and loading onto railroad cars with horses, heading toward battle.
A 1919 photo shows her father’s Company D returning to St. Louis after the war.
The treasured wartime mementos and a recorded interview with Ponciroli are part of an exhibit now at the Missouri History Museum called “Between Two Worlds: Veterans Journey Home.”
Ponciroli said that after the war: “Nobody ran around beating their chest ... saying ‘Look at these medals,’ or ‘Look at what I did,’ or ‘Look where I served,’ and all of that. It was just, ‘OK, it’s over, we did our job.’ ”
The exhibit looks closely at the experiences of seven St. Louis-area military men and women during and after wars spanning a century. All but Edelmann are still alive.
Among them is Tuskegee Army airman George Carper, who grew up in Kirkwood and fought racism even as he served his country in World War II; and Shawn Tamborski, a mother of five, who had to combat Afghan perceptions of women as she served with the Missouri Air National Guard in Kabul.
The exhibit is the first originated and created by teens in the museum’s Teens Make History program. Five local teenagers spent more than a year preparing the exhibit.
The students chose the topic, did the research, interviewed veterans in detail and made audiotapes, designed the layout and wrote text and commentary. They gathered a flyboy cap, goggles, a pilot’s helmet and dog tags for display.
The exhibit looks at how the nation’s military men and women stay connected to their loved ones during war, how they survive separation and how they cope with re-adjusting to home and civilian life.
Josh Eckhoff joined the Army National Guard after high school and made two tours of duty in Iraq. In a harrowing vehicle accident outside of Baghdad in 2007, he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He had to relearn to walk, talk and eat.
The exhibit displays his combat boots and a scarf given to him by a Bedouin to protect his face from sand.
Back in St. Louis, Eckhoff volunteers for the Mission Continues and works for the Joshua Chamberlain Society to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress or physical injury.
“I’ve always been somebody that’s been able to find a way to make the best of any situation,” Eckhoff said. “So I think while I was lying in the hospital bed, I found a way to say, ‘You know what? At 26, it’s not gonna be too bad to be retired.’ ”
Jim Lohmann’s crisp white U.S. Navy officer’s uniform is on display as well as his Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals from Operation Desert Storm. He was a Navy pilot aboard an aircraft carrier.
One of the students working on the exhibit, Tyshaun Randolph, 19, of East St. Louis, wrote about Lohmann: “During the mission he made the heroic decision to fly into the line of fire coming from Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery. ... This medal stands for the valor and bravery of the soldier who obtained it.”
After the Gulf War, Lohmann earned an MBA from Washington University with the help of the GI Bill.
After the Korean War, U.S. Air Force veteran Woody Powell also got help from the GI bill. He attended the University of California-Berkeley and later became national administrator of Veterans for Peace.
In Korea, he had served in the K-9 unit with his dog, Bodo, in a dangerous post patrolling an air base threatened by guerrillas. With help of his brother back home, and a wartime pal from Scotland, he was able to help build an orphanage in Korea.
Powell, who said he’d had a difficult transition back from war, also wrote a book with a Chinese man he met while traveling. They realized they had served very near each other in Korea on opposite sides and that they had a story to tell.
Cpl. Larry Helm, returned to America from Vietnam and rampant anti-war sentiment. He fit in by letting his hair grow long and put away his uniform.
In the exhibit, he cites a friend telling him: “We came home. We took all of our uniforms, all of the things we brought back with us. We put it in a duffel bag along with our identities as a Vietnam veteran and put it in the closet.”
He volunteers for Homeless Veterans Stand Down and works with the St. Louis Veterans Consortium.
Danny Gonzales, program coordinator at the museum and the director of the Teens Make History program, said the students are “passionate about this project, and they’re a great group of young people.”
Besides Tyshaun, the other teen curators were Devi Acharya, 17, Crossroads College Preparatory School; Vaughn Davis, 17, Eureka High School; Rachele Banks, 17, Soldan International Studies High School; and Jacob Laseter, 16, Brentwood High School. Tyshaun and Rachele are in ROTC.
Rachele was touched that Ponciroli had carefully kept a scrapbook about her father.
Tyshaun also enjoyed talking with Carper, the Tuskegee airman. Both are African-American. Tyshaun was interested that Carper had endured racism before, during and after the war — whether harassment in Alabama or segregation at St. Louis airfields.
Carper took aircraft and engine mechanics classes and then got his pilot’s license. After the war, he became a community leader in St. Louis and took over his family’s business.
Devi and Vaughn were fascinated to hear of the experiences of Tamborski, who helped train members of the Afghan National Army. She texted home to her children every day. Tamborski became especially attached to one little girl in Afghanistan and was broken-hearted when the Taliban killed the child.
Jacob sees special importance in the silver necklace that Helms was wearing when he was flown by medical helicopter out of Vietnam.
“He had it in Vietnam to remind him of his family and brought it home with him after the war,” Jacob said. “He had this necklace in both worlds: the world of war and the world of peace.”
The high school students said they won’t forget the veterans.