Throughout my time at the Virginia Beach Surf & Rescue Museum, I’ve learned an immense amount of information about Virginia Beach’s past, as well as the Life-Saving Service and Coast Guard. I have enjoyed getting to know the people and places that helped shape the Virginia Beach community people experience and love today. For the most part, the history I learned was not too surprising to me and easily slotted into broader themes and trends from American history with which I was familiar. There was one aspect of the city’s history that I was completely ignorant of, however, and it has changed how I understand a critical part of American history.

That would be Virginia Beach during World War II, particularly Operation Drumbeat, a German campaign to intercept merchant shipping in the Atlantic Ocean. German U-Boats laid mines along the ocean surface and patrolled with torpedoes. Because of this, the threat of war was never far from those living in and visiting Virginia Beach. Beachgoers could see fires out on the water, where ships had exploded after hitting German mines or being hit by a German torpedo, and came across oil and wreckage washed ashore. Throughout the war years, 89 vessels were lost off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina. On any given day that someone visited the oceanfront during World War II, there was a possibility that they would see an explosion and witness the war firsthand.

I of course knew the war was present in everyone’s mind, but not until I saw this exhibit did I know that the war was physically close as well. And this has changed the way I think about those years in American history. No longer are Americans’ experiences neatly categorized as “Home Front,” “European theater,” or “Pacific theater” when I think about how people lived through the war.