Behind an old motel in the center of the Natick shopping center sits the International Museum of World War II. Inside is a maze of exhibit rooms, lined with glass cases filled with one of the largest collections of World War II artifacts in the world. On Friday, hundreds of items will be on special display in an exhibit that commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings.
Susan Wilkins works at the museum. She also helped create the exhibit, which will remain open until December.
“So they're actually two rooms,” said Wilkins. “This is the special exhibition that focuses on the planning for D-Day in the museum's first room.”
On June 6, 1944, known as D-Day, thousands of Allied troops landed along a stretch of fortified coastline in Normandy, France. The success of the Normandy landings was a turning point in World War II, providing a beachhead for hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers to push into France and eventually defeat Nazi Germany.
Wilkins pointed out what looks like a large hardcover book.
“This one here on Neptune is just for one of the five beaches at Normandy,” said Wilkins.
It's a printed operations manual for D-Day, and it's one of Wilkins' favorite items.
"And you can see it's literally three inches thick, of planning documents,” said Wilkins. “And so presumably, there's four other sets of these planning documents for the other beaches. That's just incredible to me."
The exhibit also displays German and Allied uniforms, original guns, equipment and propaganda posters. But there are also personal touches, including original diaries, letters and photographs by soldiers.
Wilkins read an entry from the diary of a sergeant major in the British Army that was written the morning of June 6.
“He says, ‘Nice day out, lots of wet landing barges,’” said Wilkins. “And then later that day, he was killed when a bullet pierced his helmet. And we do have that helmet, not on display here, but we do have it in the archives.”
Wilkins pointed to a set of two letters in a nearby case, both written on June 9, 1944, just days into the invasion. One is penned by Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower to his wife, and the other is written by German Commander Erwin Rommel, also to his wife. Wilkins says they tell two very different stories.
In Eisenhower's, he's optimistic and praises his troops.
"He says, 'They are indescribable in their align, courage, determination, and fortitude. They inspire me,'" said Wilkins. “Rommel, in contrast, says, ‘We are doing what we can, but the enemy's superiority in nearly all regards is overwhelming.’”
Museum founder and director Ken Rendell was born in 1943, and says he grew up in Somerville with stories and conversations about the war. He's been collecting artifacts for the museum for decades. Rendell said he wants others to remember D-Day and World War II without glorifying them.
"We didn't lose as badly as other countries, but it was still a devastating thing to all these families,” said Rendell. “So I think that's something that's always really important to remember: that you don't really win wars, because you pay an awful price.”
And that price, said Susan Wilkins, was paid for by scores of ordinary men and women. That's what she hopes visitors take away from the museum.
"When you teach in a classroom setting, you typically teach about the iconic people — the Eisenhower's, the Patton's, the Montgomery's,” said Wilkins. “But what I love about the museum is that we tell the stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things.”