By Mark Patinkin
Providence Journal Columnist-
Tim Gray, who has made 21 documentaries on the war, opens an “education center” with thousands of artifacts he’s collected through the years — and visitors can hold some of that.
I asked Tim Gray if any single World War II artifact stands out for him from the thousands he has collected.
Gray, 51, a longtime documentary maker, is about to open a museum of those artifacts at 344 Main St. in South Kingstown. On Friday, he was putting finishing touches on displays including a Japanese bayonet, a concentration camp uniform and a personal dining set of Adolf Hitler’s bearing the monogram “AH.”
But to Gray, a particular helmet says the most.
It belonged to an American GI who died in the Battle of the Bulge, which began six months after D-Day. Gray pointed to a small hole in the front where a bullet went through. On top is a much larger hole where the helmet was hit by shrapnel.
More than 400,000 U.S. soldiers died in the war, and to Tim Gray, the anonymous helmet is emblematic of each loss.
“It sums up that somebody on the home front probably got a telegram saying their son, brother, father was killed in combat,” Gray said.
The helmet sits in an open display case — no glass. Gray feels the best way to connect with the past is to physically touch it and he’s hoping students, his main audience, will do so.
Gray doesn’t use the word “museum,” he calls it a “Global Education Center.” He fears World War II is a fading focus these days.
“To Americans,” he says, “70 years ago might as well be Washington crossing the Delaware.”
Gray went to URI, then began a long career as a sports reporter, including five years at Channel 10.
But he’d long wanted to make a World War II documentary so he decided to try.
In 2006, he flew five Rhode Island D-Day vets to Normandy and filmed them showing where their fight played out.
Then he did a second film, and a third, soon forming “The World War II Foundation.” He just finished his 21st film, called, “Lifeline: Pearl Harbor’s Unknown Hero,” about a sailor named Joe George who went back onto the exploding USS Arizona to rescue six men still aboard.
While editing it, Gray spent the last months getting his Global Education Center ready to open.
The concentration camp shirt is an example of his personalizing as much as he can. It bears the number 14399; Gray researched it and found it was worn by a Nazi victim named Michael Wroblewski.
“Haunting,” he says.
He points out artifacts as we walk — like a pistol with a photo of a soldier’s sweetheart under a retro-fitted clear plastic handle.
He’s got a Japanese kamikaze headband that survived the war, prompting a dark joke: “He wasn’t a very good kamikaze.”
There are helmets and guns gathered over the years from European shops and farmers’ barns.
Gray found some of the items himself on the ground in battle zones, including the barrel of an American machine-gun spotted in a jungle near Guadalcanal.
One of the rarest items is a “Rupert” — a burlap dummy “paratrooper” dropped during D-Day to distract the Germans — most Ruperts were destroyed that day, but Gray got his from a French friend’s private collection. He displays it alongside a far more lifelike plastic-molded Rupert used in the film “The Longest Day.”
Doug French, 65, is a carpenter who was there Friday helping Gray with final touches. French, son of a military dad, is a Vietnam-era vet. He looked at a display of album photos of soldiers arm-in-arm, some killed in the war.
“You see the camaraderie,” he said, “the brotherhood.”
“We send boys to war, some don’t come back.”
Then he had to stop, explaining it’s too hard to talk about.
The best way to get information on the center is at Gray’s website, http://www.wwiifoundation.org/, where you can also see his films, many narrated by notables including Bill Belichick, Dan Aykroyd, Damian Lewis and Gen. David Petraeus. Belichick is among many who helped fund the new center.
Gray feels World War II’s generation offers an especially relevant message today.
“No one in foxholes was saying, ‘Are you a Democrat, a Republican,’” says Gray. “They were Americans.”
World War II veterans still alive are a humble group, says Gray, but he notices a common feeling among them now that they’re in their 90s:
“I think their biggest fear is they’re going to be forgotten.”
He’s doing what he can to make sure that doesn’t happen.
— Mark Patinkin’s columns run in The Journal on Sundays and Wednesdays.
On Twitter: @MarkPatinkin