New exhibit at Vets Museum takes personal look at WWI


Casual decisions sometimes lead to profound, life-altering circumstances.

No one learned that more than John Pavlik of West Allis, who was 16 years old when he learned to drive an ambulance. Soon he was evacuating the National Guard 32nd Infantry’s wounded on the front lines during World War I.

What compelled the teenager to volunteer for military service during an era when more soldiers in Wisconsin were drafted than enlisted? It wasn’t necessarily deep patriotism or a desire to save lives.

“He wanted to drive a car – a new invention for the times,” explains Kevin Hampton, curator of history at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Madison. Decades later, during an oral history interview, the military vet (and subsequent Milwaukee firefighter) would speak candidly about his armed forces career and marvel at how times had changed.

Wartime work that would take him up to 15 hours could be completed in closer to 15 minutes during the Vietnam War, thanks to the invention and intervention of helicopters.

Closer to home, John Isermann of Kenosha was 21 when he signed up for U.S. Coast Guard work in 1917; he presumed that he would work on the Great Lakes and was assigned to the Tuscarora. But by the end of autumn, the white cutter was transformed into a battleship gray U.S. Navy ship, sailed to the East Coast and was patrolling the Atlantic Ocean, with heightened alerts for German U-boats to ships trapped in ice.

“He was not particularly enamored with the change” in assignment, says Jennifer Van Haaften, assistant museum director. How do we now? The sailor’s legacy includes detailed diaries of the day-to-day drudgery of Navy life, wartime experiences that are much different from John Pavlik’s.

Two personal stories. Two divergent views. Same war.

New this weekend at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is a major World War I exhibit that stays in place two years. The project coincides with the centennial anniversary of U.S. involvement in the war, whose troops included at least 122,000 Wisconsin residents; more 2,000 died.

“It’s not a history-book-on-the-wall approach,” Hampton says, of the exhibit. “We want to connect with the people involved,” and although the focus is World War I, “with much, this could be any conflict” because some war experiences are universal.

“You are faced with your own mortality and conditions” that people back home can’t fathom, he notes, and the passing of 100 years means the average person feels detached from this era of history.

Narratives and wartime artifacts from 20 veterans break and reinforce stereotypes of what military service is like because no two perspectives are identical, although the challenges of wartime conditions have common denominations.

Consider the effects of weather when stationed in remote locations. Helen Bulovsky of Madison, a nurse trained to work in immaculate conditions, describes battling rain and fleas, with patients hoisted onto plank-covered sawhorses.

“Being up to your knees in mud for three days is the type of thing that people can imagine, regardless of the era” of war, Hampton says.

Artifacts “are more than the usual ephemera of war – the tanks, trenches and barbed wire,” he says. “Those are all very powerful and important, but this is about the humanity behind the history.”

Oral histories, several done in the 1970s, are enriching because you’ll hear the veterans’ tone of voice as they tell their stories.

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum, when established in the State Capitol in 1901, was primarily a display of Civil War battle flags. It has since grown to a separate building that is across the street from the statehouse and has more than 26,000 artifacts and 2,000 interviews with veterans on file.

“WWI Beyond the Trenches: Stories from the Front” is in place at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, 30 W. Mifflin St., Madison, through April 2019. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. The museum is closed on Mondays.

Online is the museum’s new World War I database, to search for individuals by name, unit or hometown., 608-267-1799

To go beyond the Wisconsin stories, head to the National World War I Museum and Memorial, which opened in 2006 in Kansas City. The attraction is interactive and ever-changing because of new materials, especially on the Portrait Wall of veterans and their sacrifices. Powerful architectural elements include a glass bridge that has 9,000 red poppies below it (each one represents 1,000 who died in combat). The view from the top of 217-foot-tall Liberty Memorial Tower is among the best in the city., 816-888-8100

Are you a military veteran with a story to tell? On staff at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is a full-time oral historian who travels the state to interview vets and record their perspectives about military service.

“In another 50 years, we might be talking about the Gulf War or war on terrorism” as a museum exhibit, says Jennifer Van Haaften, the museum’s assistant director.

It does not matter if the service involved peacetime or a time of conflict. The vet can put restrictions on when and how the oral history is released; there is no cost to the vet for having his or her experiences documented. To learn more, contact Ellen Brooks at or 608-261-0537.