POW Exposition


Lieutenant Colonel Ross Greening and his fellow ex-prisoners of war were crushed. They had collected 56 crates of American ingenuity–POW handicraft–while waiting at their former prison camp for repatriation in the spring of 1945. Greening had wangled the 5,000 pounds of material onto an airplane bound for the states, telling an intelligence officer that the crates contained important POW data for the War department. Back in the states, Greening talked the War Department into presenting a POW Exposition and secured the YMCA’s co-sponsorship. Now on a hot and humid July afternoon the men learned that the New York City Museum of Science and Industry’s director, who liked the idea of an exhibition showcasing American ingenuity, said the exhibition could be scheduled in approximately 18 months. Greening and his men knew that in 18 months they would be scattered around the world, some pursuing military careers, most of the others happily discharged civilians. Determined to put the show on as soon as possible, Greening and his men took their crates to the third level basement of the YMCA building on Madison Avenue. Greening would need to marshall all the resourcefulness and ingenuity he so often displayed during his military career.

In the spring of 1942, then Captain Greening served as the armaments officer on Jimmy Doolittle’s famous Tokyo raid. Prevented from using the top-secret Norden Bomb sight on the raid, Doolittle asked Greening to devise a replacement. Using 20 cents worth of scrap metal, Greening fashioned the “Mark Twain bomb sight.” The sight proved more efficient than the Norden for the low-level mission. After the raid, Greening reassembled his crew following their bail out over China and brought them to safety. In late 1942, Greening went to North Africa as a bomber pilot and was shot down during a raid on Naples, Italy in July, 1943. For many months Greening eluded first the Italian fascists and later the Germans before his eventual capture.

Deep underneath the YMCA building, Greening and his ex-POWs mulled over their problem. They decided to set up a temporary display–a recreated escape tunnel–and invite the museum director in hopes of impressing him. When the director saw the exhibit he told the men the museum would host the Pow Exposition in the museum’s main hall beginning October 1, 1945.

Greening’s men spent August and September putting the exhibit together and hammered the last nail just before the opening. The exhibit contained the aforementioned escape tunnel, a full-scale replica of a 16-man room including a primitive prisoner-made heating device, a solitary confinement cell with a burlap sack instead of a mattress, wire cutters made from ice skates, and dummy guns and knives. The exhibit also displayed the arts and crafts the prisoners created to wile away the time in camp: hand carved plane models, figurines made from melted down phonograph records, and medallions crafted from old tin cans. Sixteen former POWs acted as exhibit ushers and guides.

On opening day, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia arrived to open the exhibit. The Mayor smiled at the camera, cut the symbolic barbed wire with the ice-skate wire cutters, and then headed for the door, an hour late for his next appointment. Greening chased the mayor down and talked him into staying. At first La Guardia seemed uninterested, but then the Mayor, famous for reading sunday comics to the city’s children over the radio and chasing his own fire engines to fires, saw the escape tunnel. “His eyes widened and he began to take in every detail,” wrote Greening in his book (i)Not as Briefed.(/i) “He examined the model planes, the knitting and printing samples, the butterfly collections, the poetry and music, the tin can knick-knacks and homemade utensils, and the numerous other items from everyday POW life.” The Mayor stayed for an hour and a half.

A great success, the exhibition doubled the museums regular attendance. The museum wanted to run the show for 18 months but the men decided to take the show on the road. They went to Boston, Utica, Cleveland, Columbus, Chicago, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Omaha, Denver, Spokane, San francisco, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Dallas, and closed out in Washington D.C. They made 1,500 radio broadcasts and 900 speeches. Over seven million people visited the exhibition.

At the show’s conclusion in September 1946, many personal items were returned to the original owners. The escape tunnel and the rest of the exhibit later went on display at Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and then on to an Air Force escape and evasion school in Reno, Nevada.