D-Day, June 6, 1944, is now 75 years in the rearview mirror, with worldwide events commemorating the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in their effort to wrest the continent from beneath Hitler’s palm. For Montgomery County residents unable to travel to France to visit Utah and Omaha beaches, the Sandy Spring Museum has four special History Happy Hours scheduled for D-Day’s diamond anniversary.
The series, called “America’s Weapons of War,” begins Friday, June 14 with “Cryptology and the Allied Victory in WW II,” featuring historian Dr. David A. Hatch of the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History Museum.
“We always try to have some kind of audience engagement…They want to ask questions,” said Melanie T. Pinkert, the folk life specialist who coordinates the museum’s themed programs. “It’s a way for us to have people learn about history. We get lots of suggestions from our community, and that’s one of the ways that we function,” she said.
Pinkert said that the “America’s Weapons of War” series came about partially due to suggestions from visitors and supporters who were hoping for programming that dealt specifically with World War II. The 75th anniversary of D-Day provided such an opportunity, starting with the cryptology lecture during which Hatch will discuss how cryptanalysts were able to break the code of the Nazis’ ENIGMA machine, which dramatically helped move the war in the Allies’ favor.
But that’s only the first part of the story. On July 19, the museum will screen the new film “The Six Triple Eight,” a documentary about the all-female 6888th Central Postal Battalion.
“This was the first unit of African-American women drawn from the [Women’s Army Corps] sent overseas to unclog the incredible mail backlog [of] packages and letters that were not reaching troops,” Pinkert said, adding that the women of that segregated unit worked under horrible conditions including cold, rat-infested rooms. “Working around the clock, they created a tracking system and got mail to recipients in record time.
“It was predicted it would take them six months, but they did it in three.”
James Theres, director of “The Six Triple Eight,” will attend the July screening, as will Stanley Earley, whose mother, Charity Adams Earley, was the first black woman to become an officer in the WACS.
“I’m sure we’ll have a number of people who [wouldn’t] normally come for [a lecture on] the 6888, [but] they might be interested in it from an African-American history point of view,” Pinkert observed.
Sept. 13 will feature author Theo Emery discussing his book, “Hellfire Boys,” which traces the development of chemical weapons during World War I, and “America’s Weapons of War” closes out Dec. 6 with “Code Girls,” author Liza Mundy lecturing on how more than 10,000 American women worked tirelessly to crack German and Japanese secret war codes during the World War II — a war trade previously open exclusively to men.
“They had to work with huge lists of letters and numbers and work the permutations in order to find out how to crack those codes,” Pinkert said, adding that once the codes were broken, the codebreakers were then able to traffic in disinformation tactics. “They generated coded messages from the Allied troops with false information to confuse German and Japanese forces,” she said.
The Sandy Spring Museum’s “History Happy Hour” events are, ironically, not always about historical events and sometimes touch upon contemporary. This spring, for example, John Shields of Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen at the Baltimore Museum of Art lectured on sustainable cooking, and last fall, NPR justice reporter Carrie Johnson spoke about her thoughts on the changing face of the Supreme Court.
Pinkert said other events have included topics as diverse as Islam and the works of composer John Phillips Sousa. “We had a program a couple of years ago on Finneyfrock, which was a continuously operating business from the 19th century up until the 1970s,” Pinkert said of the firm that started out as a blacksmithing shop before morphing into a turf-cutting house in the middle of the last century. As such, the firm played a part in laying down landscape for the Capital Beltway during the height of its construction.
“We had many, many people come to that program who were descendants of [workers] in the area…so, there was a huge amount of nostalgia and memories,” Pinkert said, adding that the museum also worked in conjunction with local historians on a picture book about Finneyfrock.
Pinkert recently returned to the University of Maryland to work on a doctorate in Turkish folk music, and she plays the Turkish folk lute at home. She came to the Sandy Spring Museum in 2017, where she has worked under Executive Director Allison Weiss.
“I came into this in large part with a music background, but I’ve also taught a lot and given performances,” Pinkert said. “And so, I’m really interested in talking to people and getting their stories, and it’s a very a good match with the broader kind of things that I do at Sandy Spring Museum.”
She said that many of the museum’s programs, including the History Happy Hours, have come out of input from the museum’s board as well as the community. “America’s Weapons at War” is one such instance of that realization. “It has changed [Sandy Spring] into the kind of museum it is today,” she said.
The Sandy Spring Museum presents “History Happy Hours: America’s Weapons of War” series, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 14, with “Cryptology and the Allied Victory in WWII” at the museum, 7091 Bentley Road, Sandy Spring. Tickets are free, but reservations are recommended due to space restrictions. Visit www.sandyspringmuseum.org or call 301-774-0022.