Nestled among the many tall buildings in downtown Chicago lies the Pritzker Military Museum & Library. Founded in 2003 and dedicated to preserving the story of the ordinary citizen-soldier throughout history, the museum is located in the historic Monroe Building on bustling Michigan Avenue near the city’s lakefront. The 16-story Gothic-style structure was built in the early 1900s and has been extensively renovated. The museum and library moved to the building in 2011 and occupies three floors, with two open to the public. Best described as part museum and part library, the facility offers a tremendous opportunity for individuals interested in military history and affairs.
Visitors find a contemporary setting with ornate woodwork and oak floors upon entering the museum and library on the second floor. Rows of books in a typical library arrangement are neatly positioned, with two open areas for museum displays. A magazine area contains current issues of a variety of military periodicals. A comfortable reading area, ideal for researchers, overlooks tree-lined Michigan Avenue. Naval enthusiasts are sure to notice two model warships bearing local names on display among the books. A replica of the USS Chicago (CA-29) honors the heavy cruiser sunk in the Solomon Islands during World War II, while a second model is of the new Virginia-class submarine USS Illinois (SSN-786).
A portion of the second floor display area is dedicated to Medal of Honor recipients. One section contains items from the Hershel “Woody” Williams Collection. The West Virginia native joined the Marines in 1943 and was sent to the Pacific. He fought in the Solomon Islands and on Guam and Iwo Jima. Corporal Williams received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions against Japanese positions on Iwo Jima on 23 February 1945. The medal and citation are on display along with pictures and a large quilt. Another area honors several Navy SEALs who each received the Medal of Honor for actions in the Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan conflicts. The nearby Edward Drenka Collection includes a World War II–era Coast Guard uniform, photographs, and service medals. The Coast Guardsman served on board several destroyer escorts, including the USS Calcaterra (DE-390), in the Atlantic theater.
A “Remember the Maine” display prominently featured on the second floor honors the U.S. battleship sunk in Havana Harbor in 1898. The collection includes an original 45-star American flag bearing the slogan that became a rally cry for the subsequent Spanish-American War. The display also includes pictures of the warship before and after her sinking. The remaining exhibit space on the second floor houses “Hunting Charlie: Finding the Enemy in the Vietnam War.” It presents a variety of original art and offers a point-couterpoint perspective by pairing North Vietnamese propaganda art with photos, Bill Mauldin cartoons, and reflections from U.S. combat veterans.
Hanging prominently in the center of a rectangular staircase leading to the third floor is a banner used during the 1986 commissioning ceremony of the attack submarine USS Chicago (SSN-721). Lining the stairway are a variety of Navy recruiting and propaganda posters, many from the era of the two world wars. Similar posters can be found scattered throughout the facility. A staff member later said that those on display are only a small portion of the museum and library’s large poster collection and that high-resolution reproductions of many of them are available for purchase.
The third floor holds additional rows of library books with a central information desk staffed at the time of this visit by a friendly and knowledgeable individual ready to answer questions and assist researchers. A large gallery space features “Faces of War: Documenting the Vietnam War from the Front Lines.” The exhibit presents a wide range of unique pictures and film taken by Army special-operations photographers during the conflict. The nearby Veterans Information Center offers a variety of resources related to issues affecting veterans and their families. The collection includes books, brochures, and pamphlets.
The library portion of the facility holds more than 53,000 books, with topics spanning a variety of time periods and U.S. military service branches. Members of the museum and library can check out books directly, while others can obtain materials through interlibrary loan. The general public can gain entry to the library by paying a nominal museum fee. The collection includes about 3,000 rare books available for viewing in-house as well as oral histories and archival materials. Among the library’s offerings of interest to naval devotees are 1960s and 1970s cruise books from the guided-missile cruiser USS Chicago (CG-11). A genealogy area is available to assist individuals in finding information on deceased family members who served in the military. An online library catalog available on the Pritzker website includes a wide variety of digital versions of exhibits and on-demand video and audio of past television broadcasts.
The rear portion of the facility houses a two-story state-of-the-art theater and television studio. The museum regularly hosts speakers including authors, scholars, and historians for later broadcast on local public television and podcast. The Pritzker Military Museum & Library is an interesting and informative stop when visiting downtown Chicago.
Mr. Domagalski is the author of Into the Dark Water: The Story of Three Officers and PT-109 (Casemate, 2014) and Sunk in Kula Gulf: The Final Voyage of the U.S.S. Helena and the Incredible Story of Her Survivors (Potomac, 2012).
The Guiding Light
By Captain John Allen Williams, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired)
Under Colonel Jennifer N. Pritzker’s leadership, the Pritzker Military Museum & Library she founded has become a major educational and cultural institution. Less well known is her own distinguished record of military service and support of worthwhile causes, both military and nonmilitary.
Colonel Pritzker spent the first five years of her 27 years of active and reserve military duty in the enlisted ranks of the U.S. Army, rising to sergeant. She was in the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions and the VII Corps in Germany, commanded an infantry company, and served in various critical staff positions in the Illinois National Guard. She retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel, with an honorary promotion to colonel in the Illinois National Guard in recognition of her distinguished service. Her personal awards include the Meritorious Service Medal and the Army Commendation and Achievement medals with Oak Leaf Clusters. She also earned the U.S. Army Parachutist and Air Assault badges and parachute badges from six other nations.
Many military-related organizations benefit from the colonel’s support, including Norwich University, the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation (where she has followed in the footsteps of her grandfather A. N. Pritzker), the USO of Illinois, and the U.S. Naval Institute. Consistent with her views on the importance of the citizen-soldier, she also is a strong supporter of ROTC and Junior ROTC programs, including sending Chicago JROTC cadets on staff rides to the Normandy Invasion beaches and Gettysburg battlefield and on visits to the U.S. service academies.
Colonel Pritzker supports serious scholarship, including Antarctic research, the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, and college education. She holds an honorary doctorate of military science from Norwich University and received Loyola University Chicago’s prestigious Damen Award, which recognizes an alumnus’ leadership in industry and service to others. The City of Chicago recognized her public-spirited generosity by awarding her its John A. Logan Patriot Award. Colonel Pritzker also is a leader in historic preservation. Her restoration successes include the 1912 Monroe Building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, where the Pritzker Military Museum & Library and her business—Tawani Enterprises—are located, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Emil Bach House in northern Chicago.
The closest parallel to Colonel Pritzker’s record of military service and private philanthropy in Chicago is that of World War I artillery officer, fellow member of the Illinois National Guard, and Chicago Tribune editor Colonel Robert McCormick. Similarly, Colonel Pritzker pursues a life of service to her country and to civilian society. The nation is greatly enriched by her dedicated efforts.
Pritzker Military Museum & Library
105 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 374-9333 • Email: [email protected]
Open: Tues.–Thur., 1000–1800; Fri. and Sat., 1000–1600; closed Sun. and Mon.
Admission: $5; free for members and for visitors with an active military ID.