An act of thanks: Whitewater man creates WWII exhibit
WHITEWATER—Dave Saalsaa attended the wake of Jack Frawley a few years ago and discovered his friend had served with the Marines during World War II.
Saalsaa had no idea that Frawley took part in three deadly invasions in the Pacific or that he was shot so badly a priest gave him last rites as the enemy fired on their position.
“I realized he was a real war hero,” Saalsaa said. “He, like so many, never talked about it.”
Saalsaa began asking questions and discovered he knew other World War II vets or their families.
The 65-year-old owner of Quiet Hut Sports decided to thank the veterans in a special way.
He researched their wartime service and discovered powerful stories of sacrifice and loss. Then he created a temporary exhibit with 10 mannequins to represent mostly Whitewater vets.
“I did a small part to let people know about our war heroes,” Saalsaa said.
Follow him around the bikes and past the counter in his downtown Whitewater store.
Lined up along one wall are the mannequins, accurately dressed and outfitted to appear just as each veteran did. Another mannequin stands in the store's window.
In addition to Frawley, represented are veterans Elizabeth Gardner, Art Lein, Don Hale, Jim Underwood, Gene Lee, Richard Tratt, Eddie Skindingsrude Jr., Elaine Roe and Donald Grosinske.
All except Gardner are from Whitewater. He included Gardner of Rockford, Illinois, who was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, because he wanted people to know about the contributions of WASPs.
“She was the closest one I could find to Whitewater,” Saalsaa said.
He dressed each mannequin after studying photos and researching what service members wore. He got help from knowledgeable resources, including a museum curator in France and collectors of World War II memorabilia around the world.
“It took me a long time to find the proper uniforms,” Saalsaa said. “Some uniforms are authentic. Some are reproductions.”
He also included period gear, including goggles, helmets, flotation devices and combat boots.
“Do you know how hard it is to find (World War II) women's combat boots?” he asked.
He spent thousands of dollars on the items because he was driven to make the exhibit accurate.
“World War II is real popular right now,” Saalsaa said, “which makes collectibles more valuable.”
More than 500 people from Whitewater entered the service during the war.
“The city contributed a lot to the war effort,” Saalsaa said. “Other than the fact that we had one of the first female Silver Star recipients, the veterans probably are typical of other small towns.”
The Silver Star Medal is the U.S. military's third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat.
Saalsaa began his research more than two years ago, often with the help of families or the veterans themselves. He interviewed six vets last year. Since then, three have died.
Saalsaa has not served in the military. But he has many veterans in his family, including two uncles in World War II.
“If I had the money, I would love to do a similar exhibit for local vets of Korea and Vietnam,” he said. “Maybe later.”
He wants to find a permanent home for the exhibit.
In retrospect, Saalsaa felt a lot of personal satisfaction learning about the veterans in his community.
“I wanted to understand the sacrifices they made,” he said. “All of these people went through horrific things. But they came back and were able to contribute in their lives.”
He paused, then added:
“People need to know their stories.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.
WWII VETERANS IN WHITEWATER EXHIBIT
Here is a list of the World War II veterans Whitewater resident Dave Saalsaa included in his exhibit:
-- Jack Frawley served in the Marines and took part in the invasion of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands and Saipan in the Marianas Islands. He was wounded twice and survived.
-- Art Lein served in the 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry unit trained to fight in mountainous or arctic conditions. He fought in the treacherous terrain of the mountains of Italy.
-- Don Hale patrolled the Panama Canal region by air to protect the canal from German U-boats. Special sensors in the tail of his plane detected the boats.
-- Gene Lee grew up in the circus and was best known as the clown Cousin Otto in civilian life. Lee was a gunner on a B-17 bomber based in England. Later, he became a weather reconnaissance airman.
-- Elaine Roe was one of three nurses to receive the Silver Star for gallantry under fire in Anzio, Italy. In 1944, her field hospital came under heavy artillery fire. Working with a flashlight, Roe and another nurse evacuated 42 patients. She continued the evacuation after spraining her ankle. After the war, Roe explained she was “just doing my job.”
-- Richard Tratt served as a pilot in the 514th Fighter Squadron known as the Raiders. He flew a P-47 fighter plane, the largest and most powerful of the single-engine, propeller-driven fighter planes. His unit flew air support for Gen. George Patton's Third Army on its march across France. Tratt was shot down over France and smuggled to safety by the French Underground.
-- Eddie Skindingsrude Jr. enlisted on his 18th birthday and was a machine gunner in a B-17G, also known as a Flying Fortress. He went into the service on Christmas Eve 1943. The young man was shot down and killed on Christmas Day 1944, when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft artillery shells.
-- Don Grosinske served with the 95th Infantry Division in France and Germany during vicious fighting. He served with distinction with the division as it assaulted and captured the fortified city of Metz in France. He was shot in the leg shortly after crossing into Germany. After he received medical care, he returned to his unit to fight to the end of the European war.
-- Jim Underwood survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, while serving aboard the hospital ship U.S.S. Solace. During the bombing by the Japanese, Underwood rescued burning soldiers from the water and personally triaged some 600 men after the bombing.
-- Elizabeth L. Gardner was a pilot for the Women Aircraft Service Planes. Before the war, she was a mother who stayed home to care for her family. When the war started, she learned how to test planes, instruct pilots, tow targets for anti-aircraft artillery practice and assemble planes. Gardner was from Rockford, Illinois.