This Sunday, a new display, Pennsylvania at War: The Saga of the USS Pennsylvania, will open at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. Launched shortly before the U.S. entered World War I and later damaged during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the USS Pennsylvania served as the flagship of the U.S. Navy. Later, the historic ship was scuttled in 1948 after during atomic bomb testing in 1948 after atomic bomb testing.
Chronicling the ship’s incredible witness to history, this special display highlights the majestic centerpiece from the ship’s official Silver Service, uniforms, personal effects of crew members and a shrapnel fragment taken from the USS Pennsylvania in the days after it was damaged by a torpedo in 1945. In addition, the display features an intricately detailed, scale model of the ship.
Robert Hill, military & industrial history curator at The State Museum, headed up “The Saga of the USS Pennsylvania” and recently took time out his busy schedule to offer some behind-the-scenes insights into the project:
Why is this display so important to the history of Pennsylvania?
The exhibit is a little outside of our normal bounds. Typically, we look for Pennsylvanians or a Pennsylvania unit, if an exhibit is war related. However, when you get to a U.S. Navy ship, like the USS Pennsylvania, the crew is pulled from everywhere and all over. We have made an effort, over the years, to collect from crewmembers artifacts and accounts regarding the battleship. And those efforts are evident throughout the exhibit.
How did this exhibit come together?
Pennsylvania’s main connection to the Attack on Pearl Harbor is the USS Pennsylvania. The battleship is the vehicle that carries the display through World War I and World War II. The trick was to present the history of that time in a coherent fashion. There had to be some sort of link and the battleship affords that link. Rather than just a dry recitation of facts, this exhibit is geared toward people who are not necessarily versed on military history. I had to step back and realize that not everyone shares my level of interest in military history. I had to present this story in a way that doesn’t sound like a lecture. Our goal is to stimulate a person’s curiosity so that they are motivated to discover more about the USS Pennsylvania and military history on their own.
Which artifact do you most connect with in the display?
I think the artifact that has the most significance is the shrapnel fragment. The ship was badly hit by a torpedo in 1945 and nearly sunk. The diver who collected this piece of shrapnel recounted the sadness over the loss of shipmates and the disappointment experienced by the crew. After everything that the crew had been through, they would not go Tokyo with the rest of the fleet following the surrender of the Empire of Japan. Instead, the ship would head out for repairs.
What should people take away from this display?
I’d say an appreciation of the effort that was put forth to win the War in the Pacific. A lesser point, but a great irony is that, when the USS Pennsylvania was built, it was built as the ultimate weapon.Thirty years later, the ship became a test target for the new ultimate weapon, the atomic bomb.