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VETERANS DAY

For World War II veterans, a R.I. museum that honors and preserves their memories

‘You can see them smile sometimes, and you can see them cry sometimes, but it’s all in their eyes,’ said Tim Gray, the founder and president of nonprofit foundation that runs the museum

The World War II Foundation in Wakefield, R.I., holds a trove of artifacts from the conflict, including many uniforms of both American and foreign troops.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. – For most people, the thousands of artifacts cramming the World War II Foundation Global Education Museum serve as a reminder about vigilance against modern-day fascism.

For the dwindling population of World War II veterans in Rhode Island — thought to number in the low thousands — they bring back tangible memories. The surprising heft of a rifle. The sign to Bastogne. The newspaper clippings about the path to war and then to victory, which they helped secure.

“You can see them smile sometimes, and you can see them cry sometimes, but it’s all in their eyes,” said Tim Gray, the founder and president of the nonprofit foundation that runs the museum.

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Gray scoffs at the word “obsessive” as it relates to his approach to cataloging the history of World War II and the stories of people who fought in it, but consider this: He is now working on his 33rd documentary. Gray’s films air on PBS stations around the country and are also available for free on the foundation’s website. The World War II Foundation Global Education Museum has about 5,000 artifacts, is open to the public Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Main Street in Wakefield, and charges $10 admission. You get in free if you’re under 12 or under, or if you’re a veteran.

Gray arranged for four World War II veterans — Rhode Islanders Arthur Medeiros, Hassan Salley, George Silva, and Samuel Buckler — to visit the museum on Thursday, the day before Veterans Day. It’s unusual to be able to get four World War II veterans in one place, Gray said, and actuarially speaking, it might not be practical for much longer. This is what they told the Globe about what the museum meant to them.

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While visiting the World War II Foundation in Wakefield, R.I., veteran Arthur Medeiros spoke of his service during the conflict. He served in the infantry and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Arthur Medeiros started in the Army as a private, and came out with medals including three Purple Hearts — one of which he earned after a German soldier broke through the lines during the Battle of the Bulge and smashed him in the face with the butt of a rifle. Looking at him now, you can’t really see signs of the bones it broke, nor would you guess that Medeiros, who still regularly plays golf, is 102 years old.

Medeiros’s time in the war took him from Southampton, England, to Germany. Along the way he swept through France and Belgium, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. The weather was at times worse than the enemy, although they were both dangerous.

“It was so cold — when I think of it, I still get goosebumps,” Medeiros said. “And the 88s” — a reference to a German gun — “they were screaming at us all the time.” The German shelling would shake a blizzard of snow and shrapnel from the trees.

Medeiros, who lives in Bristol and is originally from Pawtucket, strolled around the museum on Thursday, examining the uniforms he used to wear and the ones he used to watch out for. A blank-faced mannequin sported the gray tunic of a Nazi officer, with a Nazi emblem at the throat. It looked similar to the Iron Cross he once saw on the collar of a captive German officer. There’s still a twinkle in Medeiros’s eye when he describes what he did when the German officer saluted Hitler during a bombardment: He got so mad he ripped off the officer’s Iron Cross and threw it in a nearby marsh.

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Rage, redemption — there were also moments of good fortune, when he found a tin of Portuguese sardines in the pack of a mortally wounded German soldier, and of ingenuity, like when they’d warm their socks and gloves on the sizzling barrels of just-fired guns.

“It was so damn cold,” Medeiros said.

At the World War II Foundation in Wakefield, R.I., veteran Hassan Salley, who served in the Naval Armed Guard in the Atlantic, remembered his time at war.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Hassan Salley served in the Naval Armed Guard, which helped escort merchant ships making crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. He served on a merchant ship and, later, a destroyer. Salley grew up in Burrillville, and, because he loved the ocean, always wanted to join the Navy. But he didn’t turn 18 until June 1944, so he got his dad — reluctantly — to sign off on his enlistment.

By the time he got into the service, around the time of the Normandy invasion, the tide was turning in favor of the Allies and the threat of the German navy to American ocean crossings had diminished, but it hadn’t disappeared. His job as a seaman included manning the guns. He never had to fire at the enemy.

“They were lucky,” he said with a wink.

Salley, now 96, lives in South Kingstown. He has a sort of personal World War II museum in the daily journal he kept. It is scrawled with everyday memories in the tight cursive penmanship they used to teach in school.

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If he was writing in his journal when he was on board a Liberty ship, he might have noted the huge storms in the Atlantic, going up and over huge breakers as other waves hammered against the side of the tilting ship.

“The ship would creak and everything — you thought it was going to break in half,” he said.

Someday, someone in his family might go through his old journals. Not yet.

“I’ve had my share of ups and downs,” Salley said. “And I’m still up.”

Rhode Island veteran George Silva, who served in the Navy in the Pacific, spoke during a visit to the World War II Foundation in Wakefield. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

George Silva was also a gunner for the Naval Armed Guard. He remembers the watches, which lasted four hours on, four hours off. He was alone except for the Atlantic and the weather. But Silva, who grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and now lives in North Kingstown, loved it.

“Rain, really — I felt it was my company,” Silva said.

Sam Buckler served in the Army Air Forces in the Pacific. During a visit to the World War II Foundation in Wakefield, the Rhode Island veteran spoke of his service.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Samuel Buckler was in the Army Air Forces, serving in the Pacific theater. His job was to intercept enemy pilots’ radio traffic — a job that gave him an early hint of the Japanese surrender in 1945.

“I went crazy,” Buckler, now 98, said.

Everyone did. Buckler, from Providence, was half a world away from home, but with the surrender, he’d eventually head back. Men like Medeiros, in Europe, wouldn’t have to fight in Japan. First they had to celebrate. As people do when they’re in their 20s, Buckler and the other men stationed with him celebrated by having a few drinks. They’d been living in an old Japanese barracks. After the revelry, they went back into the barracks through the windows, rather than the door.

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Why?

“Because we were drunk,” Buckler said with a sort of shrug and half-smile, provoking laughter from a few of the other people in the museum.

From the Pacific, he came back to California, then home via a cross-country train. The war was over for everyone. It was an emotional moment. His parents were waiting for him when he got off the train.

“You can imagine,” he said.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.