New curator uncovering personal history of naval air station

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Ranalli explains the importance of letters and personal documents donated to the museum.
 Ranalli explains the importance of letters and personal documents donated to the museum.

LOWER TOWNSHIP – Nina Ranalli loves her job.

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon in her office at the aviation museum at Naval Air Station Wildwood, this young woman, barely a quarter century old herself, starts explaining why the small, very old objects she has selected to share are so important.

“These are some of the effects of a man who died in training here,” Ranalli said, as she removed the cover of the box storing the items. “Leonard Volpi was a pilot who crashed out on one of the runways here. We have photographs of him and with his family. There’s one here with another aviator.”

The photographs, a mix of copies and originals, show Ensign Volpi in his dress uniform in a portrait, standing with his parents, and in front of aircraft he trained in. His dog tags bore his name, rank and serial number, and a variety of insignia from his uniforms were carefully tucked in the box.

“These kinds of things are very meaningful, and people really do think of us,” Ranalli said. “They are more than happy to share and donate, so we really try to have reverence and respect for that.”

Military records indicate that Volpi died some 200 yards off runway 28 on July 6, 1945 – months before the World War II’s end. Volpi was one of 42 men to have died while training here during the war.

“That’s 42 that we know of,” Ranalli said. “There might have been more, and that is why the recordkeeping and cataloging is so important.”

Naval Air Station Wildwood was commissioned on April 1, 1943, and was an active dive-bombing training facility for navy aviators. There were 129 crashes documented in and around the base.

“These were young men here, brand new pilots and moved into advanced training to fly these dive-bomber missions,” Ranalli said. “The war created a sense of urgency so they had to learn so much, so fast.”

The facility was decommissioned in 1946.

Ranalli was hired by the museum’s Board of Directors last September in the newly created curator’s position.

“I feel so lucky to have landed here,” she said. “I have wanted to work in museums since I was very young, and there are not a ton of opportunities in curatorial work in South Jersey.”

She is a 2006 Middle Township High School graduate and earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 2010. After a brief break from academia, she returned to school and earned her Master of Arts from University of Delaware/Winterthur Museum in the spring of 2013.

“This is one of my very favorite things, so far,” said Ranalli, carefully displaying a U.S. Navy Waves uniform and cover. “Waves stood for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. This training facility was for male officers and crews, but there were women here.”

In aviation-related occupations, women trained as aviation machinist’s mates, aviation metalsmiths, control tower operators, trainer instructors and parachute riggers, according to the Naval History and History Command.

Ranalli has barely scratched the surface on stories here.

“I don’t know about women who served here, about their roles,” she said. “This is just a start, but clothing and uniforms are so personal.”

The seersucker uniform, a dress and combination cap with enlisted insignia, bears the hand-lettered nametag for a Gertrude S. Anderson – one of more than 100,000 U.S. women who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

“There’s so much to get through. People see the big exhibits, the aircraft displays, when they come here, but there are boxes and boxes of items like these,” said Ranalli. “It makes it all so very personal.”

She serves as the grants administrator in addition to her curatorial duties, and said that it takes “time and money to display and preserve these items.”

Having just completed her general survey of the museum’s holdings, she hopes to dig in deeper and begin cataloging the finds.

“Museum software will allow us to create a searchable index, so we can pull up items or written materials efficiently,” she said. “That would give researchers access, and open up the world of materials we have here. The items need to be in context so their significance is really understood and appreciated.

“There are so many stories here,” she said, spreading out letters written from the air station during the war and a poem copied out on the 1940s-era letterhead. “You can get a sense of the mood from reading these over. The letters sharing the everyday details like the weather, and this poem – it seems like someone copied it out to have with him.”

In addition to starting the catalog of its items, the museum has continued to expand its educational programs and special events. According to museum information, it drew more than 30,000 visitors in 2012.

The museum is housed in Hangar No. 1. The facility is open year-round.

Ensign Leonard Volpi (left) with fellow aviator Jack Windley. Volpi died in a training accident when his plan crashed at Naval Air Station Wildwood.
 Ensign Leonard Volpi (left) with fellow aviator Jack Windley. Volpi died in a training accident when his plan crashed at Naval Air Station Wildwood.

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