Virginia Guard historical collection helps tell centuries-old stories

Sarah Campbell, curator for the state’s historical collection, prepares a uniform for display May 4, 2017, at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti)

FORT PICKETT, Va. — For many Virginia National Guard units, 2017 marks their 100th anniversary. Units like the Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division and the Staunton-based 116th Infantry Regiment both formed as the United States prepared to enter World War I in 1917. Fort Pickett and Camp Pendleton, the Virginia National Guard’s premier training installations, also celebrated their respective 75th and 100th birthdays this year.

“The 100th anniversary of World War I, the 75th anniversary of World War II and the 50th anniversary of the ending of the Vietnam conflict, all those things are opportunities to drive a narrative of why what we do is important, why what we do in the National Guard is unique and so important, particularly as the nation turns to the Guard more and more frequently,” explained Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia.

The history of the Virginia National Guard stretches back more than 400 years, to the founding of Jamestown in 1607. There, Capt. John Smith organized a militia and ever since, Virginia has had a continuous military presence in the commonwealth.

Salvatore “Sam” Calanni gas mask, from the Virginia National Guard’s historical collection. Calanni, an immigrant, served as a motorcycle dispatch driver in the U.S. Army during World War II. (Courtesy Photo)

Williams explained that incoming Soldiers and Airmen get the basic history of their respective services during initial training, but that’s it up to leaders in the Virginia National Guard to fill in the blanks, to provide the detailed history on their units.

Working together to preserve, remember and share the Virginia National Guard’s multi-century history is a small team of individuals, including a command historian, a curator and an archeologist.

“Our major initiatives are fairly simple,” explained retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Alexander Barnes, command historian for the Virginia National Guard. “We preserve and protect what we already have, inform the public of what we do and how we can share it, assess donated materials for inclusion in the collection, educate the public on the history of the Virginia National Guard and support recruiting by using our history.”

The Virginia National Guard’s historical collection, largely housed at Fort Pickett, includes more than 3,000 items, ranging from uniforms to enlistment records. Artifacts are also on display across the state in readiness centers and museums. Step into any Virginia National Guard readiness center, whether in Bedford, Fredericksburg, Winchester or Virginia Beach, and the historical items on display all belong to the Virginia National Guard’s historical collection, and each piece helps to tell the story of the Virginia National Guard.

Sarah Campbell, curator for the state’s historical collection, serves as the steward and caretaker for the collection. Of her job, she said, “it’s about honoring people’s legacies.” Many Soldiers within the force know the dates and locations of significant battles and events, Campbell explained, like the assault of Normandy’s Omaha Beach on D-Day on June 6, 1944, but she wants people to think about what it might have felt like in those moments, to localize the story to an individual or item.

Campbell started her job as curator back in February and immediately got to work immersing herself in the collection. She said her job is to both use the collection to educate Soldiers and citizens, but also to ensure the collection is safe, that the items in her care are stored in a way that will best guarantee their longevity.

Retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Alexander Barnes examines photographs in the Virginia National Guard’s historical collection March 21, 2017, at Fort Pickett, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti)

“There’s a dollar bill that someone had in their pocket right before they stormed Normandy,” Campbell said. The owner of the dollar bill was with his unit, waiting to get orders for D-Day. “Something made him want to commemorate that moment and the camaraderie of everyone he was with, so he took out a dollar bill and asked everyone to sign it. And we have records of who survived and who did not and it’s just so special.”

Campbell explained that a lot of the items in the collection are special, but that she’s had to focus and think of them as objects in order to do her job. Still though, she said that each piece in the collection has its own story and its own connection to a unit, an event or an individual.

Barnes said one of his favorite stories is that of Salvatore “Sam” Calanni, whose gas mask and helmet are part of the Virginia National Guard’s collection. Calanni was born in Italy and immigrated to the U.S. in 1913 and was then drafted into the U.S. Army, under the name Sam Calan, and was eventually transferred to an engineering unit that fell under the 29th Infantry Division. There, he served as a motorcycle dispatch rider for the remainder of the war. He received U.S. citizenship in 1919 following his honorable service in the U.S. Army.

“The story and items fascinate me,” Barnes said. “What a great story of the American Dream.”

Barnes often receives requests from people asking for his help in locating historical records of family members who served in the Virginia National Guard.

“Every time the phone rings or an email pops up, I wonder what rabbit hole I am going to be going down next,” Barnes said. “It’s never boring and there are never enough hours in the day, but the very best part is when I can actually find something in our records or elsewhere that helps people learn more about their own family’s military history.”

Williams said his favorite part of the collection is on display at the Norfolk readiness center, where 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team has their headquarters.

“It’s the guidon for B Battery,” Williams said. It was carried ashore on D-Day, June 6, 1944. “When you see it – it’s been patched – but it was riddle with bullet holes. The fact that it went ashore, that they carried it through the entire war and brought it back, and now it’s framed in that armory, and the face that I got to meet so many of the vets that were there, […] that’s very special.”

This year, Virginia National Guard historical efforts have focused on WWI, and marking the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into what was then called the Great War.

Items from the Virginia National Guard’s historical collection stand on display at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Terra C. Gatti)

“The National Guard played a major role in the war and is units were organized into divisions by state, and those divisions made up 40 percent of the combat strength of the American Expeditionary Forces,” Williams explained during his remarks at a WWI commemoration ceremony in Richmond. “Three of the first five U.S. Army divisions to deploy to France in WWI were from the National Guard.”

The Virginia National Guard participated in several events commemorating the start of WWI, provided speakers for history talks around the state and worked with the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond on an exhibit highlighting the Virginia National Guard’s story in WWI.

“Guard Soldiers served with courage, honor and distinction and that tradition continues today as the Virginia Guard has mobilized nearly 15,000 Soldiers and Airmen for federal active duty since Sept. 11th to support the global war,” Williams said. “We owe a huge debt of gratitude for the men and women who served in WWI and the families and communities who supported them.”