Clifton Athearn helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Curtis Jones spent 26 months as a prisoner of war. Nelson Smith was a member of the Navy’s construction battalion, building pontoon barges. These are just a few of the stories and people honored for their roles in World War II last Thursday evening at the 12th annual Evening of Discovery to benefit the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
While the event was one of the museum’s largest fundraisers of the year, the evening marked a final celebration of the stories shared with the museum in their current exhibit titled Those Who Serve: Martha’s Vineyard and World War II, by Island servicemen and women through oral history, artifacts and photographs.
“There are so many amazing stories that show the horror, poignancy and excitement of war,” Linsey Lee, oral history curator at the museum, said under the tent.
“There’s so much we have to learn from it.” Ms. Lee was giving honorees bound copies of the stories she and the museum collected for the exhibit.
“I didn’t expect it,” Anne Lesnikowski, a Women Airforce Service Pilot, said of the honor. “I’m pleased and appreciate the honor.” Mrs. Lesnikowski was stationed at four bases across the country, ferrying military planes.
“It depended on the station,” Mrs. Lesnikowski said of being a woman in the Air Force. “Sometimes you were sneered at, and other times you weren’t.”
“I’m impressed with all of them, they are very good people,” she added about her fellow honorees.
At 7 p.m., the trumpet was sounded for guests to leave the silent auction and to file into the main tent for dinner. Items including private photography classes, fitness training, Chilmark Chocolates, a cooking class for six and private riding lessons were available for bidding.
But before the live auction began, Sheldon Hackney, master of ceremonies for the evening and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, recognized members of the Vineyard community who served in World War II. Clifton Athearn, Maurice Vanderpol, Anne Lesnikowski, Nelson Smith, Mev Good and Curtis Jones were six of the 22 Islanders recognized for their roles during the war.
Mr. Vanderpol was a Jewish teenager in hiding in Amsterdam during the war, and now shares his story with elementary and high school students throughout Massachusetts.
“I survived because certain people had the courage to help me,” he said. One person was a high school friend who gave him his identity card. Mr. Vanderpol inserted a picture of himself on top of his friend’s and forged the stamp that was needed.
He recalled being stopped by a Nazi patrolman one night. “He knew it was fake,” Mr. Vanderpol recalled. “Go, he said.” Every year Mr. Vanderpol shares this story as well as his wife’s survival of Nazi concentration camps with students; he most enjoys the questions they pose.
“Tonight is about saying thank you to the honorees,” David Nathans, executive director of the museum, said. “They gave us their stories . . . they resonate with people and some are pretty emotional.”
With a wind ruffling off the Edgartown harbor at the Vose Family Trust property on Tower Hill, the flags atop the tent blew and the crowd rose to sing America the Beautiful, accompanied by a military trumpet.
The sold-out evening played host to more than 300 people, and proceeds raised went to educational programs at the museum. Mr. Nathans declared the night a success. “It’s learning and smiling while doing it,” he said.
Live auction items included an 1890s American flag with 40 stars, a ski vacation, a weekend in Bermuda and a party at the Edgartown Lighthouse on July 4 next year.
“I’ve known most of who’s being honored my whole life,” Mr. Smith said, dressed in a jacket adorned with ribbons and medals. “I liked the service,” he added. Mr. Smith was called back for the Korean War, but after having three children, he decided to stay on the Island.
Honoree Mev Good was stationed in Camp Hale, Colo., as a sergeant in the mountain division. “My mother would be happy,” Mr. Good said smiling. “It’s very nice to be honored.” One woman came up to him and thanked him for his work as a substitute teacher at the high school, saying he “made a whole generation of kids happy.”
Mr. Good lost his best friend and teammate on the track and soccer team in the war, and he remembered him fondly. “[Tonight’s] a little sad because of the people who didn’t come back,” he said. “I think of them at times like these.”