I still remember the day when my seventh grade teacher wrote the word history on the blackboard as two words: “HIS STORY.” Wow, I thought. History is about stories. I love stories!
Today, as a development officer at the National Museum of American History, I am surrounded by history every day, not only when I’m working in the museum but also when I’m out visiting with our donors and hearing their personal stories. Bill and Alice Konze—longtime Smithsonian supporters—caught my attention when they became the very first donors to join the museum’s new Smithsonian Council for American History. When I sat down with them recently, I was transported back to World War II through the amazing stories they shared.
Bill Konze was born in Hamburg, Germany, on August 13, 1914. He was 8 ½ years old when he and his mother immigrated to the United States–old enough to remember how the ship’s captain gave him the special task of ringing the ship’s bell three times a day to announce the meals and how he and his mother stood on deck to see the Statue of Liberty welcome them to the United States. Within a week of arriving, Bill was back at school, in a first grade class. To his surprise and delight, the teacher had just returned from three years in Germany and was fluent in German, which was immeasurably helpful to a new immigrant who spoke no English.
Bill was patriotic from a young age. He still recalls with great respect how his mother learned every President, every U.S. state, and every state capital when studying for her citizenship test. When World War II broke out, Bill tried to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps but was turned down because of less-than-perfect vision. Not long after, he was drafted into the Army and served for 22 years active duty, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. His assignments were diverse, including time in Naples, Italy, investigating the black market; overseeing 1,800 German prisoners in Leghorn, post-war; inventorying 36,000 army vehicles that were being re-crated for transport to Japan; teaching ROTC; and, finally, managing the budgets of all Ordnance and Signal Army depots in the United States.
Alice was born in Snohomish, Washington, on July 31, 1920. She is a “double DAR,” with ancestors on both the Cole and Stockton sides of her family qualifying her for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. (One ancestor, Richard Stockton, was a signor of the Declaration of Independence!)
Alice graduated from the University of Washington and vividly remembers that she was skiing on Mt. Baker with her college friends when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. She moved to San Francisco to work for the war effort, and one day got a call from her mother, who told her about the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). In 1943, the WAAC was reborn as the Women’s Army Corps, fully part of the Regular Army, and she enlisted. “I joined because my mother told me to,” she said; adding in a knowing whisper, “it was a different time!” Alice’s service totaled 20 years, 1 month, and 13 days, and included time in Paris, Germany, and Korea, retiring as a Major. She was in Paris on V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day), May 8, 1945, and joined thousands of others in the streets of Paris, celebrating all day long.
Though Bill and Alice didn’t know each other at the time, they both retired from military service on the same day. Coincidence? Yes. But Bill also adds, “the Army’s first big pay raise since World War II happened on this day, so there was a good reason to pick October 31, 1963!”
The Konzes met on June 12, 1965, at a party hosted by a retired officer and mutual friend, and they were married a year later, to the day. In July 1966, they moved to Oxon Hill, Maryland, and have lived there ever since. They have been visiting the Smithsonian for years and even today, at ages 90 and 96, still attend Smithsonian events on a regular basis, including events for the group that they helped to establish, the Smithsonian Council for American History. “It’s a wonderful world and the Smithsonian has it all!” said Alice.
The stories that Bill and Alice shared gave me fascinating glimpses into World War II and the early days of women’s military service, and reminded me that history is not just in the stories, it is the stories.
Amy Karazsia is the Director of Individual Giving at the National Museum of American History.