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Voices of experience

For the first time, the secretive Museum of World War II is sharing soldiers’ artifacts, stories

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By David Filipov
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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NATICK — Morley Piper stood in a room filled with the things his enemy once carried and tried to tell a story that after 66 years he still does not understand: How he survived the bloody assault on Omaha Beach on D-Day, when so many of his fellow US infantrymen did not.

As Piper reached back for those memories, a small crowd waited in a hall stocked with mortars, machine guns, and grenades taken from the battlefields of Europe. Steel-jawed soldiers glared from authentic Nazi propaganda posters. An air raid siren wailed.

The audience had come on a recent Thursday to the Museum of World War II in Natick to the hear front-line accounts from Piper and other members of his dwindling generation.

Until this year, only a select group of World War II buffs and researchers was allowed into this astonishing trove of wartime artifacts hidden in a squat warehouse off Route 9. Now, for the first time, the highly secretive museum is offering public tours guided by veterans like Piper in a setting that lets visitors see and touch the mess kits they carried, the uniforms they wore, and the weapons they fired on battlefields over six decades ago — and share in the memories they have kept ever since.

“Most of us thought we weren’t going to make it off the beach,’’ said Piper, of Essex, who was a 19-year-old second lieutenant when he commanded a platoon in the 29th Infantry Division that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Of the 40 men in his platoon, 17 survived.

Piper told visitors how German defenders had pinned down his company in the sand. He told of the exhilaration he and others felt when they broke through a hole in German fortifications. Piper was eventually awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. But he dismissed his commendations with the modesty common in veterans of the war. “It was nothing special to get the Bronze Star,’’ he said. “I don’t talk about it much now. It’s hard to do.’’

Other World War II veterans have gone public with their stories, but until now, no one has done it in this particular setting — a museum that actor and producer Tom Hanks has described as the “Holy Grail of World War II.’’ The idea is to bring to life the events chronicled by the more than 5,000 letters, battle plans, weapons, and other relics assembled in the 10,000 square-foot space through the insights and sensations that only someone who was there can share.

“The only way a person can experience more personally this cataclysmic period is to look into the face and hear the voice of an ordinary person who rose to the challenge of extraordinary times and saved the world,’’ said museum director Kenneth W. Rendell, who assembled and owns the collection. “To look into the eyes that witnessed the turning point of the century is deeply moving and unforgettable.’’

The eyes of Samuel Bernstein, a Randolph resident, briefly teared up as he recounted his role in the assault on the island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific. “Please bear with me, I don’t like doing this,’’ Bernstein said, his voice faltering. But, he added, “I owe it to the boys who didn’t come home.’’

The visitors were rapt as Bernstein, who was a 20-year-old machine-gunner in the Fifth Marine Division, described “36 days of hell’’ from the beach landing on Feb. 19, 1945, to the last, desperate battle.

Against the backdrop of mess kits, medals, and letters soldiers had written home, Bernstein recalled the surprise counterattack by the island’s Japanese defenders on the last day, which killed the two other men in his foxhole. The men had handed in their ammunition before boarding the ships that would take them home. Bernstein had kept two M-1 rifle rounds as souvenirs.

“They saved my life,’’ he said.

The museum plans to use the proceeds from the tours with veterans to raise money for its own project to keep history alive: a documentary film called “Saving the Reality,’’ which compiles first-hand accounts of more than 50 combat veterans and others who witnessed war and its consequences, including Holocaust survivors and civilians on the home front.

The three-hour tours will run on Thursdays and Saturdays through the Fourth of July weekend, and cost $100, which is a tax-deductible donation. The museum also offers unguided tours for $25 on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

“People who have the interest know the value of the experience of being able to interact with these veterans while also supporting the goal of preserving their stories in the film,’’ said Tim Gray, who is producing the documentary. He added that the museum will donate copies of the film to schools and libraries in Massachusetts.

Veterans speak at exhibits that match their experiences. Piper spoke in a section that contained the complete plans of the invasion of Normandy, a mannequin of a French woman outfitted in a wedding dress stitched together from a US paratrooper’s parachute, and a bust of Hitler that had come into the possession of General George S. Patton, who then trained his dog to urinate on it. In saving the reality, Rendell does not attempt to sanitize it; the bronze bust is streaked with stains.

The museum keeps its address a secret: Visitors find out where it is only after they have made their reservations. When they arrive, they must pass through a metal detector, under security cameras, and they sign a release promising not to photograph or make videos of the collection. They must make reservations at least two weeks in advance, and no one under 18 is admitted.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind collection in the world, and because it’s hands on, you don’t want anyone leaving with something they shouldn’t leave with,’’ said Gray. “Museums have safeguards in place so that someone doesn’t walk off with a van Gogh or a Monet. This is a collection of the real stuff and you can’t put a price tag on its historical value.’’

The value of the guided tour was evident when Jon D’Allessandro, a World War II buff who owns a construction company in Avon, chatted with Richard Dinning of Natick, who flew more than 30 missions over Europe as the pilot of a B-17 bomber in the 351st Bombardment Group.

Dinning told the story of a bombing raid in 1944 when he had decided not to put on the flak jacket and helmet he was supposed to be wearing, and instead left them under his seat, “because it was easier to fly that way.’’ At one point, he felt shrapnel hit his plane, but no one on board could find the damage. It was only after the bomber landed that Dinning saw that the shards had pierced the plane directly under his seat — and been stopped by his body armor.

“If I’d have worn my flak vest I might not be around,’’ he said.

After the war ended, Dinning flew freed French prisoners of war, who had spent nearly five years in a Nazi camp, from Austria to an airport south of Paris. He recalled when the B-17 flew across the French border.

“There wasn’t a dry eye on the plane,’’ Dinning said. “There’s no satisfaction in combat, but that was a good mission.’’

More information about the tours is available at www.museumofworldwarii.com.

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.

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