WASHINGTON - When it comes to working in a controlled environment, it's not unusual to have special badges and keypad entries. For Julie Kowalsky, safe-cracking skills come in handy.
Kowalsky, a curator with the Collections Management Division (CMD) at the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), has hundreds of antique and historical weapons locked in a temperature-controlled room behind a vault door with a combination-spin lock. And sometimes the lock on that 1915 vault door manufactured at York, Penn., can be a bit temperamental.
Behind that door are the most precious artifacts of the collection Kowalsky manages at the storied Washington Navy Yard, the historic small arms and ordnance vault.
Kowalsky unlocks a cabinet within the vault to show the embossed pistols given to the crew of the nuclear- powered guided missile cruiser USS Texas (CGN 39) for its Sept. 10, 1977 commissioning by former Navy officer and future presidential candidate Ross Perot.
She slides open a drawer and a gold-plated AK-47 assault rifle lies gleaming under the florescent lights. Made in Iraq, it was seized during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The room holds a variety of weaponry, from Civil War pistols, Japanese ceramic grenades and ceremonial swords from famous admirals. The staff does not have the facilities to allow the items to be shown to the public, but they are available to researchers (by appointment). For now, the curators are on a mission to re-catalog and photograph each item to allow the public to see the items digitally online.
History seems a natural path for Kowalsky, a native of Pontarddulais, Wales. She met her future husband, Michael, an American working for Lockheed-Martin, in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Kowalsky moved to the U.S. in 2000 where the couple married and settled in a rural area near Manassas, Va.
Kowalsky then received an internship reviewing transcripts for users and workers at the 9/11 Family Assistance Center. One of her duties was assisting Srandis "Randy" Papadopoulos, a historian at NHHC, conduct oral interviews of Pentagon survivors for a Defense Studies Series about the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
Kowalsky volunteered at NHHC in 2004 while working on her master's degree in U.S. history at George Mason University. Five years later, when a permanent position came open, Kowalsky joined the Collections Management Division team, the curators responsible for cataloging and maintaining more than 157,000 artifacts. They also keep track of artifacts in its robust loan program like Adm. Isaac Hull's gold-embossed ceremonial sword from the War of 1812 and bells. Lots and lots of ships' bells.
"People are passionate about ships' bells," Kowalsky said.
But they don't always care for them properly. Her division's tasks include making sure those organizations with NHHC ships' bells on display properly care for them, and not put cement in the bell under the mistaken assumption that would keep it intact, according to her colleague artifact loan officer Constance Beninghove.
"There are more proactive ways of protecting it," she said.
If Kowalsky is seen scrolling through eBay during working hours, it's probably because she received an alert that someone put a naval artifact up for sale.
"It keeps us busy," Kowalsky said.
The CMD has been re-cataloging its artifacts to get a digital update and picture of each artifact and to be sure they are stored properly. It's a daunting task, but it has its perks.
Kowalsky was assigned to catalogue items in some old Smithsonian cabinets that hadn't been touched since they were acquired in the 1960s. As she went through the drawers, she noticed a brown manila envelope and opened it. Inside were two hand-written letters, dated 1789 and 1804, from British Adm. Lord Horatio Nelson. One was a letter responding to a sailor who had asked for a character reference, and another had the esteemed British naval legend inquiring about prisoners of war.
"It was just the bees-knees," Kowalsky said. "It's like it's always Christmas morning, unwrapping that present to see what gift is inside."
After working within the general collection for several years, she got the opportunity to work with the historic small arms collection in 2011.
"I didn't know one gun from another, but I have since learned," she admitted. "I liked the technology and the evolution of weapons, and the social and cultural aspects of them as well." One of those items tucked away in the artifact room is a laptop that survived the 9/11 blast in the Pentagon. Its melted casing and keyboard is a stark reminder about those who were lost during the three attacks, of which 67 were British citizens working in the stricken World Trade Center.
"It makes you reassess things," Kowalsky said of the 9/11 artifacts, including a Pentagon clock that stopped at the moment of impact. "Just looking at the security check list to know who checked in and who didn't come out..."
One of the oldest weapons in the collection is a trophy cannon called "San Bruno" on display in Leutze Park, a Spanish 6-pounder Saker cast by Andres Melendez in 1686. They have a collection of machine guns that range almost from an early 1860s Gatling gun to that gold-plated AK-47.
And perhaps the oddest-looking weapon: a Cold War-era briefcase gun.
Kowalsky likes finding that connection from an artifact to how it relates in history. Among her favorites are World War I-era British Vickers and German Maxim machine guns because they are symbolic of the rapid evolution in machine gun development, where significant strides in military technology impacted the way war was conducted, forcing conventional methods and strategies of warfare to be reinvented to take into account new technology.
"Being born in Britain and having a grandfather who served in the First World War, the war still has a significant impact in the consciousness of the country," Kowalsky said. "It was also a time of significant social and cultural changes in Europe, so it is a fascinating time period to study."
Kowalsky tells of cataloging a pair of curling tongs from one of the two German sea raider ships Kronprinz Wilhelm and Prinz Eitel Frederick, interned at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth at the beginning of World War I.
"Artifacts tell us the story of those ships held in port," Kowalsky said. "The everyday objects are the historical objects of tomorrow that inform our understanding of a time period long after the people who lived through those times are gone. To see a tangible example of history informs the viewer in ways a document or a photograph often fail to do and can very often enlighten those trying to understand how something worked and adds important context to historical documents."
During a tour for new employees, often part of her duties, Kowalsky holds the cover (Navy-speak for hat) of Adm. "Bull" Halsey, the last five-star fleet admiral, who gained fame during World War II. Her research on Halsey earned him her admiration.
"He seemed like a 'to heck with convention, let's get it done,' type of guy," Kowalsky said. "I would have liked to have met him. I think we'd have something in common."
She developed another close connection to a 1907 United States Naval Academy graduate while working on the collection of Olympic medals that had been donated to the Naval Historical Foundation in 1967 by his widow. Capt. Carl Osburn earned 11 medals -- five gold, four silver and two bronze -- in rifle marksmanship competition over three Olympics from 1912-24. He also had a distinguished career in the Navy.
While conducting research, she found information that described Capt. Osburn during his Naval Academy days as being "quiet, reflective and a good listener," and one who was "never known to show much excitement over anything." But it also reflected a sense of humor, in that he "once made a speech of ten words, but as his roommate fainted, he hasn't tried it since."
"I think he epitomizes the maxim slow and steady wins the race," Kowalsky said. "He has a special place in my heart."
Osburn held the record for the most Olympic medals until swimmer Mark Spitz tied it in 1972, with nine gold medals of the 11 he earned. American swimmer Michael Phelps currently holds the title at 22 medals, including 18 gold. After the 2014 Olympics, 90 years after Osburn won his last medal, he still ranks 20th in the world among the top multiple-medal winners.
Kowalsky has found being a curator suits nicely with her personality of "everything in its proper place," finding items that had been misplaced and getting them back where they should be.
"At the end of the day, just knowing one more piece is where it belongs and is OK, that is satisfying," she said.
The Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for the preservation, analysis, and dissemination of U.S. naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy's unique and enduring contributions through our nation's history, and supports the Fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services.
NHHC is composed of many activities including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, nine museums, USS Constitution repair facility and the historic ship Nautilus.
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- Karen France, head curator for the Collections Management Division of the Naval History and Heritage Command, showed Rear Adm. Kate Gregory, commander of the Naval Facilities Command and Chief of Civil Engineers, weapons in the historic small arms vault during a tour last year. The items on display include a laptop that survived the 9/11 bombing of the Pentagon, and experimental weapons developed by naval ordnance innovator Capt. John A. Dahlgren who would later be named chief of the Bureau of Ordnance in 1862 at the Washington Navy Yard. He would be promoted to rear admiral the following year. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford/RELEASED)
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- Julie Kowalsky, the small arms curator with the Collection Management Division of the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington (DC) Navy Yard, reads off the display card about the gift of two .45 caliber Alamo model Colt revolvers and knife set given to the cruiser USS Texas for her Sept. 10, 1977 commissioning by Ross Perot, a former naval officer and future presidential candidate. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford/RELEASED)
Small Arms CMD Kowalsky AK-47
- Julie Kowalsky, the small arms curator with the Collection Management Division of the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard, displays a gold-plated AK-47 taken in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The weapon was most likely used in formal ceremonies. On the shelf is a briefcase submachine gun that was donated to the CMD by an NCIS Field Office. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford/RELEASED)
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- Julie Kowalsky, the small arms curator with the Collection Management Division of the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington (D.C.) Naval Yard, shows experimental weapons designed by naval ordnance innovator Capt. John A. Dahlgren who would later be named chief of the Bureau of Ordnance in 1862 at the Washington Navy Yard. He was promoted to rear admiral the following year. Kowalsky is holding a percussion rifle with an experimental taped primer mechanism for the hammer, while on the table is a prototype of a low maintenance rifle system. (U.S. Navy Photo/RELEASED)
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- Julie Kowalsky, the small arms curator with the Collection Management Division of the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard, hoists up an experimental minigun designed by naval ordnance innovator Capt. John A. Dahlgren, who would later be named chief of the Bureau of Ordnance in 1862 at the WNY. He was promoted to rear admiral the following year. This heavy machine gun never went into production, but is just one of many weapons, U.S. and foreign, within the Collection Management Division's Historic Small Arms collection. (U.S. Navy Photo/RELEASED)
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- Julie Kowalsky, the small arms curator with the Collection Management Division of the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard, shows the gold-plated and engraved pistol given to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Thomas B. Hayward during a visit to Brazil in 1982. It is part of the historic small arms collection. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford/RELEASED)