The main reason for being in Gettysburg was to visit Erik Dorr and his partner Cheryl, who run the truly amazing Gettysburg Museum of History. This is in Baltimore Street right in the very heart of old Gettysburg and is also housed in Erik’s family home – Erik’s forebears have been living there for generations and in fact, a great-great aunt, still alive in the 1930s, had been living in the town during the fateful Battle of Gettysburg back in July 1863.
Erik admits he’s never been a great sports fan or that he was into the kind of stuff other young kids tend to be into. Rather, his first passion was history and from an early age he began collecting. Some of the Civil War artefacts he has in his museum were passed down through the generations, but most the many thousands of exhibits he has collected himself. It’s quite the most extraordinary museum I have ever seen. Approaching the small, compact town house, the first impression is that it must be small, homespun and about the Civil War: the odd uniform perhaps, a rusted rifle, a few bullets and photos and that’s all. How wrong you would be. The difference between facade and interior is on a par with the Tardis. And while, yes, there are lots of Civil War artefacts, these are of incredible rarity and quality, including the very desk used by Joshua Chamberlain before the battle raged around Little Round Top and from which he issued his orders. This, though, is just to scrape the top of it, and the Museum boats artefacts that range across US history, not just those bloody years of the Civil War.
There is, for example, a room dedicated to the Kennedys. There is a suit worn by JFK, the cartridge shell from the bullet fired by Jack Ruby to kill Lee Harvey Oswald. There is the handle of the film camera that caught the moment of JFK’s assassination. There’s a scrap of the limousine seat leather – with blood stain – and countless other artefacts, documents and nick-nacks. There is JFK’s wicker rocking chair, so good for the back that was damaged during his time as a PT boat captain in WWII.
Then there is the WWII section, which was, for me, truly astonishing. The amount of Hitlerian memorabilia is incredible: Eva Braun’s camisole, stockings, leather suitcase, an entire cutlery set once belong to her, not to mention one of Hitler’s shirts, plus artefacts from the Berghof, Führerbau and his own private apartment in Munich. There are WWII uniforms, rare helmets, weaponry, documents, flags, banners, and, almost most surprisingly of all, most of Dick Winter’s personal memorabilia from the war: his M42 jump jacket, his No.1 uniform, his Colt .45, the original typed-out diary pages written just after Carentan in June 1944, plus a host of other stuff.
This, of course, was fascinating to see, not least because Dick Winters is probably currently the most famous of all US WWII serviceman – after all, what American under fifty has ever heard of Audie Murphy these days? Dick Winter is the man: the star of Band of Brothers, leader of the attack on Brecourt Manner, and imperturbable commander of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the most famous and hallowed of all US army units thanks to Stephen Amrbrose’s book and the wonderful and enduringly popular daddy of all wartime TV productions, Band of Brothers.
But that’s not all, because Erik also has a pretty much complete set of Dick Winter’s papers: written accounts of his wartime career, hand-sketched maps, endless correspondence with other men of Easy Company and, perhaps most significantly, an extensive set of letters with an American girl back home who effectively became his wartime pen-pal. I’m not going to say any more about them here, but they are honest, revealing and show a different side to Winters that is utterly fascinating. I also looked through a lengthy file of letters between Dick Winters and the ice-cool Ronald ‘Sparky’ Spiers, one of the finest officers in the 101st and later in the war Easy Company commander. And yes, he does deal with those big unanswered questions from the book and TV series.
SO if you ever find yourself heading to Gettysburg, do go and see Erik and Cheryl and their outstandingly good museum. It’s unforgettable.