Nearly 50 years ago, Larry S. Trusty climbed a mountain in a Vietnam jungle with his fellow U.S. Army soldiers to hoist a 12-foot wooden cross at the summit.
That memory was captured in a poster-sized photo Trusty gave to a place he hoped that story could be retold.
Nearly hidden on the expanse of the Dayton VA Medical Center sprawling campus, the Miami Valley Military History Museum is a collection of the artifacts and stories of people such as Trusty and his brothers and sisters in arms, from the Revolutionary War to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and veterans who wore the nation’s uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan.
‘Source of pride, comfort’
Most of what’s inside the 19th-century house was given by veterans or their families eager for their story to be told.
“I know it’s a source of pride for them because they want to know what they did is not forgotten,” said Mark Conrad, the museum’s volunteer curator and an Air Force veteran. “It’s a source of comfort for them because they know when they are gone their things are not going to be relegated to the trash heap of history in a very real sense.”
All told, the military history museum “conservatively” has 10,000 items, roughly half of which are on display, said Conrad, curator since the museum in an old library opened about a decade ago.
“There are few if any groups that are not represented out here because I learned early on if you don’t have something from a given group, guaranteed somebody will come through the door and give you a couple hours of grief over it,” he said.
For Trusty, who also donated a long-barrel pre-Civil War musket rifle and other artifacts, it was a place for memories of that day in October 1968 when he climbed the mountain, and of that era, to live again.
He wanted to “preserve history,” he said. “I’ve always liked history and antiques and I know I can’t have a museum.”
The museum, housed in the old Putnam Library in Building 120, has a piece of the U.S.S. Arizona battleship sunk at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, marking the nation’s entry into World War II. Crumpled, burnt steel of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and pieces of the crash sites at the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in a Pennsylvania field on that day lay inside displays.
And then there’s flight helmets, caps, dog tags, POW artifacts, an 18th-century sword, a Medal of Honor, and rows of uniforms with the names of those who wore them, often while at war. There is a Rosie the Riveter-style mannequin, a replica of a Revolutionary War uniform, and stained glass sent from a Women Airforce Service Pilots veteran who flew planes across the country in World War II.
“There is just very few names or other artifacts that do not have a name or history to them,” said Dayton resident Catherine I. Beers, 55, an Air Force veteran who gave medals Army paratrooper Jack Blaine Beers, her late father, was given for service in Vietnam, the place he died in combat.
“We get to tell that history,” the museum volunteer added.
‘Not big and sexy’
Conrad, 54, has put many items out of his own collection gathered for decades on display.
“We’re not big and sexy like the Air Force museum because we do this on our own time and our own dime,” he said.
But today, he said, it’s “self-sustaining.”
“We get something (donated) from around the country pretty much every week,” he said. “Sometimes we get drive-by donations. Come to work in the morning and sometimes there’s a bag hanging on the door.”
Vietnam veteran Vincent R. Dec, 68, a former Marine, gave flight maps, pins, patches and bomber aircraft headphones his father-in-law had in the Army Air Forces in World War II.
“I get emotional sometimes when I go through there,” said Dec, of Xenia. “I like military history and there’s a lot of history in there.”
Artifacts represent time in military service and faded memories, but those memories of war aren’t always bad, said Conrad, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and a tour of duty in Bosnia.
“Those artifacts don’t necessarily evoke bad memories,” he said. “Like most military people, I remember some of the bad stuff. But the majority of things I think about are the people I served with, the good work that we did, some of the stupidly funny things that happen in the military. In addition to helping preserve history, we’re helping people get back to the memories that they recall that time with fondness.”