On a recent rainy afternoon, Mervin Robinson leaned on the receptionist’s counter at the Jacksonville Museum of Military History and laughed about one of the darkest days of his life. As a boy in Coventry, England, Robinson was in a corrugated underground shelter behind his home with his family when German bombers all but leveled the city during one of the longest sustained bombing raids of the Second World War. Though they had been instructed to keep the door shut, Robinson said his father couldn’t help but peek out.
“The first time he looked out, he said ‘The house is still there,’ ” Robinson laughed. “He looked out a while later and said, ‘The house is still there.’ Then he looked out a third time and said, ‘The bloody thing’s gone!’ ”
Museum vice president Bill Elia said that old war stories are common there, with many World War II vets and their families stopping by for a visit. Run with private donations and volunteer staff and housed in the old administration building of the Arkansas Ordnance Plant on Main Street in Jacksonville, the museum has been open since May 1. This is no tourist trap, however. With over $1 million invested so far and a 9,150-square-foot addition going up out back, the museum currently features only a small part of the collection of artifacts the staff has been able to amass through purchase and donation, spanning military history from the Civil War through Vietnam.
Museum president Ben Rice said that many people have donated their relatives’ World War II mementos to the museum, sometimes bringing in whole footlockers full of items. The museum recently hired women whose sole job is sorting through and categorizing these donations, which range from a holey pair of navy pants, to a Christmas card signed by Adolf Hitler.
“You’d be surprised at the people that have stuff at home,” Rice said. “It’s just sitting and nobody looks at it, and they think, ‘Why do we have this stuff here? Why don’t we just take it up to the museum where somebody can really see it?’ ”
In addition to weapons, uniforms, captured war memorabilia and models of various planes, exhibits include a large collection of more than 100 framed propaganda posters from both World Wars, on topics ranging from saving cooking fat for Allied bomb-making to a poster of Uncle Sam hovering over a battlefield, created by the painter N.C. Wyeth. The museum has its share of oddities as well: models of Viet Cong booby traps, a paper mache clock built when metal was scarce, a brass pick once used at the Ordnance Plant to avoid sparks, and a suitcase made from the table where a Japanese admiral signed the surrender of his fleet in World War II.
Elia, who directed fighter traffic from a flying command post over Vietnam, said the museum and the artifacts in it have a message for today, especially at a time when America is once again at war.
“What is it they say?” Elia asked. “If you don’t know history, it will repeat itself? Something along those lines. So I think it’s very important.”
Rice and Elia say that the thread that unifies the museum is the strong Arkansas and Jacksonville content, starting with a large exhibit of artifacts and documents about the Civil War battle of Reed’s Bridge, which was fought just outside the city. From there, the viewer moves on to the little known and long-gone Ebert’s Field in Lonoke, where young fliers were trained during World Wars I and II. A room devoted to the Arkansas Ordnance Plant focuses on the contribution of women during World War II, and features motivational posters that would have hung in the plant, and red bandanas printed with tiny white bombs that the female workers wore to keep dust out of their hair. A final Arkansas connection is found in an exhibit on the ballistic missiles that once dotted the countryside north of Conway, including a wrench and socket like those that caused a devastating explosion at a silo near Damascus in 1980.
Through corporate and private donations, the museum hopes to expand. The new addition will house exhibits on the history and mission of Little Rock Air Force Base. Rice said they hope to rotate the exhibits every six months, with nothing out of bounds, from the Japanese internment camps in Arkansas to the civilian protests during the Vietnam War. To reach that goal, the museum is currently selling memorial bricks for the walk outside, and they’ve petitioned the Highway and Transportation Department for signs leading travelers to the museum from the interstate. And, of course, they take donations of military and war-related items.
What the museum wants most is more visitors. It’s just off Main Street at 100 Veterans Circle in Jacksonville. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for senior citizens and military and $1 for students. For more information, call 501-241-1943.
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