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Fort Chaffee museum preserves wallets found in barracks

July 15, 2018

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — Visitors to the historical museum in Fort Chaffee will soon get to witness history straight from the pockets of former servicemen.

Museum personnel and researchers at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith are working to preserve contents in more than 20 wallets discovered in the barracks at Fort Chaffee from the 1950s and late 1940s. Along with military IDs, each wallet contains personal effects such as photos and other forms of identification, the Southwest Times Record reported.

“It’s a snapshot,” Rod Williamson, curator of the museum and historic district, said of the wallets.

The wallets were first discovered by former Fort Chaffee asbestos program employee Jerry Phillips in the 1990s. Phillips said he discovered them while inspecting each of the barracks for asbestos requirements.

“I found some that were in the attics, some that were inside the (air system),” Phillips said.

Phillips, a military veteran, said he believes the wallets ended up where they did because of people stealing them and then discarding them after they took the money. These people, called “barracks rats,” are common throughout the military, he said.

“You take society, and you just shrink it down into a smaller area. You’ve got thieves, you’ve got all kinds of people,” Phillips said. “It was easy pickings, a lot of the times. On Saturday night, GIs might have been out to the local bars or on post and come in and might have been a little bit easy with what they do with their wallets.”

Phillips told Williamson about the wallets through Williamson’s father, who is a friend of his. They were given in June to the Pebley Center at UAFS for digital archival before they are put on display in the museum.

The contents in the wallets include photos of loved ones, meal cards and dry-cleaning receipts, said Shelley Blanton, an archivist at the Pebley Center. Blanton said she even found a DWI ticket in one of the wallets.

Blanton said the contents in the wallets provide her further context about their owners. She said two of the wallets belonged to African-American servicemen, that three of the owners are confirmed deceased and that the owners permanently lived as close as Oklahoma and as far away as Minnesota.

“I did find one who had an announcement on findagrave.com, which is how I found out he was deceased, and they were going to send my information on to a family member,” Blanton said.

Once Blanton is done with the archival, the wallets will be placed in the display. Williamson said the display will have something to do with “barracks rats” and their prevalence in Fort Chaffee.

Williamson hopes viewers enjoy the human aspect of the display as well.

“It’s just little pieces of history,” Williamson said. “It’s interesting.”

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Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/

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