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Donna Esposito
Historian, Museum Curator, and Author

Tell a little about yourself and how you became interested in the Pacific War
I'm originally from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, not far from where James A. Michener and Margaret Mead grew up and Pearl Buck and Oscar Hammerstein II lived. I developed an interest in World War II at an early age. My father was a child during the war and felt a nostalgia for the era that he passed on to me. Moreover, World War II was the subject of many popular books, movies, and TV shows when I was growing up; it seemed more current than in the past to me.

Tales of the South PacificWhen I was nine years old, my father took me to see a local production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.” I had heard the music before, but didn’t really understand what it was about (“Bloody Mary’s chewin’ betel nuts and she don’t use Pepsodent!”???). After that everything made sense, and I wanted to learn as much about World War II, especially in the Pacific as I could. I learned that “South Pacific” was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, written by James A. Michener as the war was ending and the musical adaptation was written at a farm a few miles from my home. Although the play deals with a few stories, the book presents a much broader picture of the war in the Pacific, with stories about coast watchers, Seabees, Marines, amphibious assaults, naval aviators, malaria control officers, and more.

Reading the book for the first time (and many times since in the intervening years), I was struck by one line at the beginning, speaking of the people who served in the South Pacific: “Longer and longer shadows will obscure them until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge.” I found it astounding, and deeply saddening, that Michener realized what he and the others who served in WWII had just experienced, arguably the most monumental event in human history, would be a distant memory in a few generations. I knew then that I somehow had to keep those shadows at bay. And that I had to see Guadalcanal with my own eyes.

Unfortunately, I did not see World War II history as a career path, and instead pursued my other interests in science, earning a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology at Lehigh University and a doctoral degree in genetics from Cornell University. I performed scientific research at the New York State Department of Health and then spent more than a dozen years running a genetic testing laboratory performing STR and SNP analysis.

How did you transition from genetics to museum work and historical research?
I had the good fortune to be “liberated” from my laboratory position and decided to focus on finishing a novel I’d started some years earlier. I’ve always loved museums of all sorts and had long been interested in working behind the scenes in a museum. At first I figured I would stay in biological sciences, but I was enjoying working on my book and another WWII research project so much that I decided to focus on my passion for World War II, particularly aviation. I became involved with the Empire State Aerosciences Museum (ESAM) in Glenville, NY and am now the director of the library and archives there. This has been a great transition and has allowed me to pursue my mission to preserve and promote the history of World War II and its veterans.

Tell about the process of writing your novel Flying Time.
Flying TimeI’ve always enjoyed writing, and I started writing Flying Time for myself. It’s really my ultimate fantasy of what I’d want to do if I could go back in time. I hadn’t intended to share it or publish it, but then I realized it could expose people to World War II history who might not know very much. After all, popular culture was instrumental in sparking my interest in WWII and learning the real history behind books, TV shows, and movies.

I’ve collected WWII sweetheart jewelry since I was a teenager, but my best “find” was a trench art sweetheart charm: a heart-shaped piece of Lucite, undoubtedly from the canopy of a crashed plane, with an AAF collar insignia embedded in it. Engraved in the brass is “New Guinea 1944.” I’ve always wondered who made the charm and how it came to be in a box of junk at a flea market, so I built the story around the charm, adding in some real-life characters and some purely fictional. My heroine finds a similar charm under similar circumstances, and it becomes her destiny to return it to its proper owner. This naturally involves a trip to the South Pacific!

Click For EnlargementIn some ways I feel like I’ve been researching this book practically my whole life. I especially enjoyed including minor details, like what movies were actually playing on a particular day in 1943. I also was pleased to be able to include the story of a young soldier whom I have been researching for many years. He did not survive the war, and this is my way of giving him a little more time. I hope to fully present his story in another venue.

What made you want to visit the "real" South Pacific?
I had wanted to attend the 50th anniversary of Guadalcanal in 1992, but couldn’t for various reasons. The time seemed to fly by, and the next thing I knew the 75th anniversary was coming up in 2017. I decided to take a historical cruise “up the slot” in the Solomon Islands with Valor Tours led by historian Andy Giles in June 2017. It was an amazing and life-altering journey. We visiting more than a dozen different islands, including Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Savo, Banika, Pavuvu, Munda, Seghe, and, as a personal favor to me, Vella Lavella, home of VMF-214.

Click For EnlargementSeeing the places I’d read about for so many years was incredible. I have to say it was very much as I’d imagined after reading so many first-hand accounts over the years, but seeing it in person does give a much deeper understanding of what our troops were facing. Just seeing the Solomons would have been an amazing trip, but it culminated with the most unbelievable experience: the night before I was leaving Guadalcanal, a man named Samson from Barana village came to see me and gave me a rubbing of two US Army dog tags and a pressed penny charm from Hawaii. He explained that the tags, along with remains, had been found near the village and asked me to help return them. The tags belonged to PFC Dale W. Ross of the 35th Infantry Regiment. He was Missing In Action (MIA) on January 14, 1943. Now like my fictional heroine, I felt it was my destiny to return the tags to their proper owner, the family of PFC Ross.

How did you become involved with Pacific Wrecks?
Click For EnlargementAfter I returned from Guadalcanal, I found the family of PFC Ross. I was trying to decide what to do with the information about the tags and remains, and a friend I’d made on the trip suggested I contact Pacific Wrecks. Of course I’d used the website as a resource for many years, so I contacted Justin Taylan for advice. After discussing several options, he suggested I return to Guadalcanal with him for the 75th anniversary events in August. Unbelievably, I did make a second trip to Guadalcanal, along with the niece and nephew of PFC Ross.

Click For EnlargementThe four of us traveled to the village, saw where the dog tags and remains were found by an eight-year-old boy and recovered them and turned them over to the DPAA. The family has since received the tags and pressed penny charm and awaits official identification of the remains. This amazing series of events has led to a great partnership with Pacific Wrecks, and I’m excited to be able to put my research skills to use working on our common mission to preserve and promote the history of World War II in the Pacific.

What are your feelings about war relics, battlefields and these locations today?
As a warbird enthusiast, I love seeing restored planes in museums, and especially ones restored to flying condition. I’ve had the extreme pleasure of flying in the Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless 54532 owned by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), as well as two different B-17s and AT-6s. However, I have to admit I never thought a lot about where parts for those planes might be coming from until I visited the Solomons and learned about the brisk trade in illegal aircraft salvage. Moreover, it never occurred to me that some salvaged planes might be Missing In Action (MIA) sites that were not properly surveyed before salvaging. As much as everyone likes aircraft, the people who flew them are really what matters. No MIA remains should ever be lost for the sake of salvaging some aircraft parts. It’s also important to remember that these planes are on private property and landowners should be fairly compensated and all laws obeyed. I think many museums would be disturbed to find the unethical dealings surrounding some of the planes in their collections. A better option would be to preserve these planes in situ or in local museums, rather than illegal export.

Thank you for the interview Dr. Esposito!

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