As a museum curator I am of course interested in the big picture, the sweep of events that bear on us all to one extent or the other. But the stories of individuals also have an undeniable lure, because sometimes in the story of one person we can better understand some of the larger forces at work.
With that in mind let me tell you about a recent acquisition CHS has made. At first glance it is a small collection, primarily photographs, relating to the World War II experiences of a young man from Hartford named William J. Quish, Jr. The son of a foreman at a Hartford manufacturing plant, Quish worked as a shipping clerk before enlisting (or being drafted?) in the Army in early 1941. Originally slated for duty in the Panama Canal Zone, the young man instead found himself assigned to the U. S. Army Air Force. In 1943 he was suddenly transferred to Buckley Field outside Denver for training at the Fighter Armament School. This brand new installation, one of dozens quickly constructed to train military personnel in a variety of technical skills, specialized in turning out trained ground crews who could arm and service combat aircraft. Bombs and bullets were their stock in trade, and their services were called for around the globe in support of Allied air operations.
One of the items in the collection is a yearbook, much like a high school or college yearbook of the time that each man was given upon graduation, with photographs of staff, students, facilities, training and recreational activities, etc. Quish’s thumbnail photo shows a skinny 24-year old in khakis. Other photographs include studio portraits done while he was home on leave on a couple of occasions. Each photo seems to show a slightly older, more mature William Quish.
By the time Quish graduated from the Fighter Armament School the air war against Nazi Germany was in high gear. To supplement the attacks mounted by the Eighth Air Force, based in the UK, the Fifteenth Air Force was organized to operate in the Mediterranean area. The heart of this force were heavy bombers (B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators) operating from new air bases in southern Italy. Their job was to attack German forces and industrial centers from the south. A series of snapshots show Quish and some of his buddies relaxing at their base in Italy.
End of story? Not quite. By now Quish was a staff sergeant and, it turns out, no longer a ground crewman. In fact it appears he was now an air crewman, a ball turret gunner on a B-24 Liberator. We know this because in March 1945 the Hartford Courant noted that Quish was being awarded the Air Medal in absentia for meritorious service. Why in absentia? Because his aircraft had been shot down over Austria the previous October and Quish was languishing in a Luftstalag (POW camp) somewhere in that country. His father William, Sr. received an invitation to attend the award ceremony at Bradley Field and accept the medal for his son. Fortunately for the Quish family Russian forces liberated the POW camp, and Quish and his fellow captives were able to return home before year’s end.
Following his return to Hartford and final discharge in 1946 Quish worked for a local electrical equipment manufacturer, and later for the state military department. At the time of his death in May 1978 he was a resident of Newington.
The value of the handful of photographs, the yearbook and one letter in this collection suddenly multiplied when more and more of Quish’s story was revealed through research. In an undertaking as major as World War II does the story of one guy really matter? Well, yes, because the history of that defining event is really made up of the stories of millions of individuals, military and civilian, friend and foe, across the globe. So, think your own history doesn’t count? Think again.