'Long Island at War' exhibit in Stony Brook

Helmets from a private collector from Long Island

Helmets from a private collector from Long Island from World War II are on display at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook as part of the museum's new exhibition, "Long Island at War," opening Memorial Day weekend, 2014. (Credit: Yvonne Albinowski)

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Long Island's role in the history of America at war is often associated with the first one. The AMC series "Turn" focuses on Setauket, a hotbed of revolutionary fever that George Washington cultivated for espionage purposes -- this after the disastrous Battle of Long Island nearly put an end to a nation barely a month past its Declaration of Independence.

But as the exhibition opening in Stony Brook this Memorial Day weekend illustrates, Long Island has played a key part -- often unsung -- in every major armed conflict from the Revolutionary War through Afghanistan.


"Long Island at War," opening Friday at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages, traces the Island's strategic supporting role, from its occupation by British troops hoping the strangle the port of New York City, to Grumman's "arsenal of democracy" built in scant months following the attack on Pearl Harbor. But America's wartime history hardly ends there. From the 547 Long Islanders killed in Vietnam to Lt. Michael P. Murphy, the Navy SEAL from Patchogue, one of 14 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients from the Island, hometown sacrifices are documented through uniforms, battle gear, air-fighter mock-ups -- yes, even air-raid shelters -- plus letters, posters, photographs and video testimony.

"We have somewhere north of 200 objects related to Long Island and America's wars," curator Joshua Ruff says as he gently extracts a Civil War "presentation" sword and sheath from a box sent by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. "That we're a Smithsonian affiliate got us in the door," Ruffs says, "but the hoops you have to go through . . . " The dress-uniform sword belonged to Capt. James Green of Brooklyn.

Other artifacts cover many wars: a cannonball from the New York Historical Society shot in the Battle of Long Island; a New York State militia uniform from the War of 1812; an 1862 Civil War recruiting poster displayed in Hempstead; a Betty Grable pinup painted on a World War II helmet, and Revolutionary War muskets lent by Huntington historian Rex Metcalf, who also lent his Vietnam War uniform.


Ruff says that what he learned from putting the exhibit together mirrors what he hopes for many who, like himself, never experienced combat: "There's a lot we don't get about war. When you personalize it, the battle becomes much more vivid."

Among veterans he contacted for prospective video interviews, Ruff found several who were eager to share their experiences. But, as might be expected in recalling such instances, others declined. The memory of lost buddies is often cited as a major factor in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lt. Murphy, a casualty of the post-9/11 Afghan war, is buried at Calverton, the largest national cemetery in the country. On this Memorial Day, the memory of his heroics -- like those of many others -- enshrines Long Island's wartime legacy.

WHAT "Long Island at War"

WHEN | WHERE Opens Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 28, Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook

ADMISSION $9, $7 seniors, $4 students; 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org

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