The National Museum of the American Sailor owes much to the sailors who carried a camera or a pen and paper and recorded what they saw while they served. Materials such as diaries, letters, photograph albums, or even a simple handful of snapshots help inform us about the past experiences of the American Sailor and comprise part of the Museum’s archival collection.
None of the Sailors whose material exists in the museum’s collections knew that their written words, photographs, or scrapbooks would perhaps one day become part of a museum archives. At most, they wanted to document their days in the Navy or perhaps show friends and family their adventures around the world. But at the time each Sailor wrote a detailed letter, or inserted photos into an album, or pasted movie tickets and dance cards inside a scrapbook, he or she captured a moment.
One sailor, Alvin Williams, told a story with seven photographs. Williams was an eighteen -year-old African-American man from Chicago who joined the Navy in December 1943. While first in boot camp and then overseas, Williams saved a handful of snapshots and his boot camp company photograph. One of his photos shows Williams and his shipmates in the Ping Ming Bar in Hong Kong, October 29, 1945. Williams annotated the photo on the reverse to indicate his exuberance about the visit to the bar.
But when we look at his photo, we see something more. In late 1945, two Caucasian Sailors and three African-American Sailors went on liberty together and sat at a table together, only three years after the Navy resumed enlisting African-American Sailors. A grinning Chinese child only adds to the questions we can ask of the photo.
Upcoming articles will tell more about the ways that Sailors’ personal papers come to the museum, the varied uses of historical materials, and interesting finds we come across.