Monday, November 11, 2013

The Unintended Destination



When people ask me what my favorite artifact in our Museum is, I usually respond with an answer that surprises them.

A Nazi flag.

On the second floor at the end of the World War II: Sharing the Story exhibit, there's a portion of a Nazi flag from 1944. Someone cut out the white circle and black Swastika and framed it on a field of red. We don't know who did that, but we do know the flag used to be on an 8' red banner.



The best part about the flag, however, are the signatures. Around 50 signatures and addresses surround the Nazi insignia. The signatures belong to American soldiers.

We were given the flag in 2006 by a local businessman who had an affinity for militaria. If you ask him where he got it, he'll tell you that two brothers knew he was into World War II artifacts and offered it to him at a price he couldn't resist. He had never seen a flag like this. The brothers said their dad was a veteran, but his name was not on the flag. Their father never really told them how he got it.

A friend of the Museum saw the flag and talked to the businessman, who agreed that the Museum of World Treasures would be a good place for it. He donated it shortly after that.

When one of the former employees saw the flag, he decided he wanted to know the story behind it. The best way to do that was to call the guys who signed it. That proved to be a little more difficult than we imagined. He compiled a list of the names, some of whom left their addresses, and one of whom was from Argonia, Kansas.

But we ran into some problems: We knew the flag had been signed at least 60 years before we got it, during the war. That meant that there was no guarantee that anyone was still living, and we didn't know if anyone made it home from the war. On top of that, the majority of them had very common names and our list of potential signers went from 50ish to thousands overnight.

As you can imagine, the process was frustrating. Until we got down to the end of our list. One of the only  names without an address was at the top of the flag: "S.Sgt. Cyril Leuelling." We called Sgt. Leuelling and began telling him what we had: "We've got this Nazi flag, your name is on it, please don't hang up the phone." What Cyril said next blew everyone away:

"You found my flag."

We were finally able to piece the beginning of this story together. Cyril and his fellow troops had just liberated a small French village near Fontainebleau. They were in a high school auditorium and Cyril saw the flag hanging from the stage. He and a buddy ripped it down. Everyone signed it, and two days later, they found a military postal service. Cyril mailed home letters, a money order, and the flag.

Cyril said that the letters and money order got home. But the flag never did.

He spent 62 years searching for it. He said that at reunions, he and his war buddies would talk about what happened to it - and no one was ever sure. Until that phone call from our Museum.

Of course, we wanted Cyril to be reunited with the flag again, but we were surely not going to mail it and travelling to us was not in the cards. So the same staff member that called him drove to Illinois and spent a Saturday with Cyril. The photo we have hanging on the wall with Cyril and his two daughters is incredibly special. Imagine being reunited with an item that held memories of the most vivid, scary, and defining moments of your life. It was emotional. It's still emotional. He said we could keep the flag because having it where people could understand and appreciate it was important to him.

Cyril's story is told to school children and guests who go on guided tours. It's the last thing they hear on their tour and the first thing they remember about the Museum when someone asks them what their favorite part was.

Today, however, the story got better. For months, one of our volunteers and a Vietnam veteran, Ron, has called and written to Cyril to get his military history recorded. A few months ago, Cyril expressed interest in visiting the Museum of World Treasures to see his flag on display. We were overjoyed. Cyril told us he would be in Wichita with two of his daughters on Veteran's Day.

A local hotel donated two rooms for them, we had lunch and dinner at two of our favorite local restaurants, and invited all Veterans to the Museum with free admission for the day.
Here I am, watching Cyril's reaction to seeing the flag again.
It was perfect. Ron picked up Cyril from the airport and brought them to the Museum, where he saw the flag on display for the first time. He told us a few stories, and we took him to lunch. After lunch, I gave him a tour of the Museum; the same tour that I give that normally ends with his story. At around 3pm, we had a reception for Cyril and unveiled a surprise for him.

Cyril speaking to the crowd.
The local news was there to cover the event. There were two other World War II veterans, Vietnam veterans, and veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan there. There were Air Force reps in their dress blues. There were kids, one of whom said her grandmother pulled her out of school an hour early to go. Our CEO spoke first to introduce the story, then the employee who found Cyril spoke, then the man who donated the flag (who said it was an honor just to shake Cyril's hand). Then Cyril got up, and told his story.

He talked about going ashore on D-Day, and being soaked to the bone. They thought they'd get a fresh pair of clothes shortly after they landed, but they didn't see that kind of luxury for months. He talked about his fellow comrades including an 18-year-old who was killed when Cyril was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. He talked about saving a man's life and seeing the freed prisoners of war. "Skin and bones," he said. "That's all they had."

Cyril spoke about sending home the "souvenir" flag, and strapping seven German pistols to his belt. Four he gave away, two were stolen, and one still sits in his home and has never been fired. He spoke about his homecoming on a ship with 12,000 other men. He spoke about earning a medal from the French government as a thank you to him for helping save their country.

The Army flag we presented to Cyril as a gift.
While he was speaking, the Nazi flag was in the background. Next to it, a US Army flag covered a section of the exhibit. Ron told Cyril we had a surprise for him and took the US Army flag off the wall. He handed it to Cyril. Under the flag, his surprise was revealed. A shadowbox with all of Cyril's medals was hung. Cyril still had his medals (and wore them on his Ike jacket), but we wanted to show how important he was to us. The medals in the box were donated. Ron tracked them down. They were donated by collectors, different branches of the military, and Ron himself. The purple heart, the bronze star, the D-Day commemoration medal...a dozen more.
Cyril reacting to the shadowbox placed in his honor.



After we unveiled this box, it was Cyril's turn to cry. "This is a good day," he said to the crowd. His daughter agreed. "One of the best days," she said. He shook his head yes and looked again at his medals, his honors, his flag, there on the wall in our small Museum. He looked back out at us, as if in disbelief that we made something in his honor. The crowd erupted in applause.





At dinner that night, I told Cyril that around 8,500 school children heard his story this past year. He asked if I had pictures of them. "I have scrapbooks," he said. "I'd like to see them learning about it." I said I would send them. And I also told him my story would change now. Now, I said, I had the honor of adding in that he stood where the kids stand when they hear the story, that his voice echoed through the hallways here, and that I had the privilege of shaking his hand.



I shook his hand again and thought about the things he had done:

Fought during the biggest war our nation has ever seen. Swam ashore during D-Day. Shot at the scariest enemy during World War II. Almost lost his life when he was shot. Ripped down a Nazi flag in a French high school and just like any young man, sent home that souvenir to his parents.  Who would have guessed that 69 years later, in a small Museum in Wichita, Kansas, he would shake the hand of the person who told his personal story to thousands.

This is why history is important: it teaches us that every action has a consequence, no matter how small. Cyril Leuelling sending home a flag that missed its destination has resonated through my life, and the lives of so many others.

The flag's unintended destination has become its home.

"This is a good day," he said. Surely is. One I will never forget.




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