Ray Kurtz was just an 8-yearold boy when American involvement in World War II started in 1941, but the nation’s fervent war effort inspired him to collect its memorabilia throughout his life.
“The men — mainly men, and some women — were going to war, and they were going to save us from the Germans and the Japanese and so we really got caught up in the war,” Kurtz said.
Kurtz, 81, a retired Kansas State University education professor, is displaying part of his World War II collection at the Kemper Art Gallery at the K-State Student Union through Friday.
Visitors can step into the gallery to music from the era, from the Anderson Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to Peggy Lee’s “Waitin’ for the Train to Come Home,” as they look at propaganda posters, wartime maps that show airbase locations and paintings. Kurtz even has a sketch called “Collecting Station” by Kansas artist John Steuart Curry, known for his painting of slavery abolitionist John Brown displayed in the Kansas Capitol.
“During that war, we wanted the nation to feel pain,” Kurtz said. “We rationed sugar and tires and gasoline. There were no new cars. We knew the war was on.”
Kurtz said while growing up on a farm in Osborne County, his dad would listen to the radio every night to see how the Americans were doing.
“Very important. Oh, we were quiet when the radio news was on,” Kurtz said. “Of course as kids, we were kind of frightened about what would happen.”
The patriotism behind the effort was influenced by propaganda.
“These posters were hung in post offices and bus terminals and train stations and factories to keep in front of people all the time that the war was on, and ‘We must be doing our part,’” Kurtz said.
Posters that read “The ENEMY is listening. He wants to know what you know. Keep it to yourself” and “If you tell where he’s going ... He may never get there!” encouraged Americans to keep secrets.
“You got to be careful what you say. The enemy is listening, so you don’t want to tell any secrets,” Kurtz said.
In one corner of the gallery are postcards that feature World War II cartoons. Some feature caricatures of Hitler and depictions of Japanese soldiers that use negative racial stereotypes.
“We wanted the nation to feel that these people weren’t worth anything — (that) they were bad — and they were,” Kurtz said of the sentiment at the time. “They were killing the sons and husbands of a nation. It was a huge war, a huge undertaking.”
Kurtz said that because of those things, in the case of World War II, he thinks the use of propaganda might not have been all bad. He said it helped unite Americans for a cause.
“Is propaganda all false? Is it just stretching the imagination? I don’t know,” Kurtz said.
Among Kurtz’ other memorabilia are letters, “sweetheart jewelry” that soldiers sent home to their girlfriends and wives from overseas and a glass case of matchbooks, many inked with the letter “V” for victory, a widely used symbol during World War II.
Kurtz also replicated the drawings he used to make in elementary school of fighter planes in a series framed on the gallery wall.
A “collector at heart,” he said, Kurtz began obtaining World War II gear when the war was over and he purchased gear from the Army’s surplus, buying inexpensive boots.
Kurtz spends time in the popular exhibit every day talking to its patrons, explaining the history and the reasons behind the patriotic attitudes of Americans at the time.
Rose Hill resident Nita Cole, who was visiting K-State with her teenage daughter, Monica, spoke with Kurtz about veterans she has known. She told Kurtz she had an uncle who served in World War II.
“They don’t like to talk about it that much,” Cole said to Kurtz. “I think it’s painful memories for a lot of them, and most of my family that served, they really don’t like to discuss the details of that.”
Despite the fact that the war started 73 years ago, people today are still connected to it today, Kurtz said, because of the veterans who are still alive.
“It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t have somebody in the family that was in World War II,” Kurtz said.
But today, according to a U.S. Veterans Administration report, just more than 1 million World War II veterans are left of the 16 million who served.
The country has not had to ration sugar, meat or rubber since those 16 million served.
Kurtz said what he wants from his visitors is for them to think about the war’s ubiquitous influence on Americans.
“The war was felt by the whole nation with the use of propaganda and patriotism,” Kurtz said. He said he wants visitors to leave “knowing that the home front was just inundated with patriotic examples.”