ROCK ISLAND ARENAL, Ill. - A piece of the Ludendorff Bridge crossed by First Army Soldiers during World War II has made its way here, along with several other historically relevant pieces.
They will eventually be displayed in First Army headquarters. Right now, the items are going through a conservation process and plans are being made to house them in climate-controlled, museum-standard displays.
Making this happen was mostly the work of Capt. Kevin Braafladt, First Army Support Command historian, and Patrick Allie, Rock Island Arsenal Museum director. The pair worked with the Center of Military History and other organizations to help bring home some of First Army’s history.
“When First Army left Fort Meade, they left most of their historic collection there and it became property of the Center of Military History,” Braafladt explained. “When it was identified that First Army wanted to have some more historic collections on display, we applied to the Center of Military History to receive some of these items.”
But it wasn’t just a matter of the requested artifacts being shipped.
“We had to go through a process and make sure we had display cases and spaces available that would properly preserve the items,” Braafladt said. “Most of these items have never been conserved. They’ve never had a museum technician go over them and make sure of their long-term sustainability. From this point, we send them to a conservator and ensure the display cases that will be put in First Army headquarters are up to museum standards.”
First Army is purchasing the museum-standard display cases and the items will be kept away from direct sunlight on the second and third floors of First Army headquarters.
“They protect against humidity levels and UV light pollution, as well as ensuring the materials in the case are not causing an environment that’s going to be damaging to the artifacts,” Braafladt explained.
Ideally, that process will be completed within six months. But whenever it happens, it will enable workers and visitors at First Army headquarters to come face-to-face with key moments in the unit’s history.
The artifacts include uniforms, helmets, flags, and even a Soviet finial from their meeting with First Army at the Elbe River during World War II.
Among the uniforms are an overcoat worn by former First Army commanding general, Lt. Gen. Hugh Drum and a dress uniform of another First Army commander, Lt. Gen. William Train.
The clothing remains remarkably pristine, which does not happen by chance.
“All of these came from the Museum Support Center at Fort Belvoir, which is a custom-built, purpose-built facility that houses a big chunk of the Army’s collection,” Allie said. “These are all put in archiveable-quality storage. It’s all temperature-controlled and designed to prevent decay and prevent any sort of outside contaminants from effecting anything. We wear gloves and handle everything very carefully.”
But the aim is to create more than just a static display.
“The items have what we call provenance or history, they are linked to an individual,” Allie said. “Many of these came either from the individual themselves or from the family. That information lives with these objects and was the driving force behind deciding to bring them here. Having these items on display shows where First Army came from. Artifacts provide a great touchstone for Soldiers to understand the history of their command and gives them a glimpse into the past. Even greater, what lessons from the past that affect us today? Artifacts provide a great vehicle to drive that narrative.”
Braafladt echoed Allie’s sentiments.
“They are relatable to what we are doing today: Training and partnering with Reserve Component forces,” he said. “While Gen. Drum’s uniform isn’t specifically teaching you something, it harkens back to what First Army has done for a very long time. And these are lessons that some of what we to today is directly from that period in the 1930s.”
It also brings history to life. In 2018, Braafladt unearthed the long-forgotten First Army song in the National Archives. The song highlights some of the unit’s signature accomplishments, such as crossing the Rhine River at the Ludendorff Bridge during World War II. This was a crucial moment for two reasons. It served as a major symbolic victory since it represented the first time since Napoleon that a German enemy had crossed the river. Second, it was of strategic importance since the river was the last significant obstacle before Berlin.
“We sing ‘First to cross the River Rhine,’ and that is a pinnacle moment in First Army history. Having a piece of the Ludendorff Bridge is a reminder of where we came from and what First Army has achieved,” Braafladt said. “Or the Soviet finial came from a huge moment of pride and a great turning point in the war, the first time the Soviets and western Armies had met and cut Germany in two.”