Veterans United Military Memorial Museum Is Emerging Treasure

Hidden in Plain Sight, Route 9 in New Gretna
By RICK MELLERUP | Apr 17, 2019
Photo by: Rick Mellerup

A word I hadn’t used for well over 50 years bubbled up from the depths of my vocabulary upon looking around the Veterans United Military Memorial Museum in New Gretna for the first time: Neat!

I was transported back in time to when I was a child, to the pre-Vietnam era in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the United States military had few, if any, detractors; when people of all stripes honored veterans; when far more families boasted a member of the armed forces than is the case today, thanks in part to a peacetime draft. In 1962 the United States had an active duty force of 2,807,819 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines (compared to today’s 1,281,900), despite a population of about 186.5 million, compared to a 2019 estimate of 328,285,992. My father never served, but my mother came from a family of 13 kids, and I had plenty of uncles who were either on active duty, in the reserves, or veterans. Uniforms were a much more common sight on the streets of the U.S. in the long-ago days of my youth.

Perhaps most importantly to the national psyche, the United States had never lost a war at that time, although a bloody draw on the Korean Peninsula should have served as a warning.

The military in the early 1960s was so respected that many boys dreamed of becoming a member, playing war with toy guns and grenades, fighting off a Russian invasion (it would have actually been a Soviet incursion, but we used the word Russians). I was one of them, one who thrilled at every small-town Memorial Day parade, including a most memorable one in Vermont that featured a white-bearded veteran of the Spanish-American War serving as grand marshal. I couldn’t wait for open houses at the now-defunct Plattsburgh Air Force Base, where I got to step into the cockpits of tankers and had the chance to stare into the gaping bomb bay of a B-52 bomber. When I fell asleep at night, I would dream of being a fighter pilot or a commando, the latter spurred by my favorite Marvel Comic, “Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos.”

Things changed. As I got older and replaced the word neat with cool, hundreds of thousands of boys not all that much older than myself were being shipped to a far-off country named Vietnam. That wasn’t cool.

By the time “far out” became my favorite expression, I had no desire whatsoever to volunteer for the military, even shrugging off the efforts of West Point, which was having serious trouble filling its ranks with the Vietnam War raging, trying to recruit me as early as 10th grade.

A visit to the Veterans United Military Memorial Museum brought me back to my childhood, and suddenly I was 8 years old again.

Neat!

If a museum can bring back such a flood of memories, it is doing its job!

Museum Started

As a Road Show

I had never heard of the VUMMM until a few weeks ago when I wrote a preview for a night of comedy at Cuisine on the Green at the Ocean County Golf Course at Atlantis in Little Egg Harbor. The comedy show was a benefit for the museum.

The museum is located in New Gretna, just a handful of miles from my home. So how come I had never heard of it?

As it turns out, the museum – brainchild of Lincoln Mott, George Mott and Frank Place – was incorporated way back in 1984, earning its 501(c)(3) status from the IRS the next year. So, again, why hadn’t I heard about it?

Well, the museum started out as a traveling road show, bringing a trailer-full of veterans- and war-related artifacts to schools and events around the state. It didn’t get a permanent home at 5576 Route 9, just north of the entrance to the Garden State Parkway and catty-corner from the legendary concrete Renault Bottle, until 2017. Even now just a small sign announces its presence on a dusty, Bass River Township-owned lot.

Route 9 in New Gretna is lightly traveled, thanks to the Parkway. So I’m sure I’m not the only person, not even the only local, who was or is unaware of the museum.

Jim Comis, museum president since the death of Frank Place in 1998, said the museum’s volunteers still drive a 28-foot trailer to schools and festivals that arrange for a visit. Recent events included appearances at an Armed Forces Day celebration in Mount Holly, the Eagleswood Country Fair, the Roar to the Shore Motorcycle Rally in Wildwood and the Atlantic City Air Show.

“We keep our .50 caliber (machine gun) in the trailer,” said Comis. “Everybody wants to see that.”

The permanent museum has plenty to see. Although its interior is still being designed and constructed – this reporter had to step around a stack of plywood while touring it – it already has a plethora of interesting objects, some donated, and many others purchased by members such as Comis.

“You find a lot of things on eBay,” said Comis. The prices, he said, are often reasonable. It is the shipping of heavy items that runs up the cost.

So, let’s step inside, shall we?

Rifles, Shells,

And Land Mines

The first display case you’ll run into on a tour of the museum is one that shows the basic infantry weapons of the U.S. military since there was a U.S. military: rifles.

The Springfield M1903 rifle was oldest on display. It began production in – duh – 1903 and was produced in, yes, the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Mass. The bolt-action .30-06 rifle was the standard infantry rifle of American Doughboys in World War I, and remained a sniper rifle through World War II, Korea and the early stages of Vietnam.

The Springfield was replaced as the standard infantry rifle for U.S. troops in 1937 by the M1 Garand, also on display in the case. It was a faster-firing semi-automatic – no need to physically eject spent shells with a bolt – and was standard issue for American troops in both WWII and the Korean Conflict.

The M1 carbine was also on display. Shorter and lighter than an M1 rifle, it was a semi-automatic weapon that fired .30 caliber shells. The M1 carbine saw action in WWII, Korea and well into Vietnam.

Another weapon on display in the case was a fully automatic Thompson submachine gun. It didn’t look like the Thompson made famous by gangsters in the Prohibition era. Al Capone and Co. used Thompsons featuring a drum magazine; the military version, which had its heyday during the Second World War, employed box magazines in an attempt to save weight.

The M14 in the display case had a short shelf life, replacing the M1 Garand as the standard issue rifle for the United States military in 1959 and replaced by the M16 beginning in 1964. It was a selective fire weapon, meaning it could be fired in semi-automatic, burst and fully automatic modes, employing 7.61 mm ammo.

Comis said an M16 would soon be added to the case.

The Veterans United Military Memorial Museum displays many other kinds of weapons, such as a bazooka, an FIM-43 Redeye man-portable surface-to-air missile system, mines and tank shells.

One that proved very interesting was an M18 Claymore mine. Unlike most mines, this staple of Vietnam was – is, as the weapon is still in use – a directional anti-personnel mine that is command detonated, meaning a soldier or Marine has to fire it by remote control instead of relying on an enemy to step on it or set off a trip wire. They’re used as anti-infiltration devices against enemy infantry and are scary indeed, considering each one launches 700 1/8-inch steel balls upon detonation.

Two things stood out about the Claymore on display at the VUMMM. One, it is small, weighing only 3.5 pounds with a length of just 8.5 inches. Two, it bears a bold-lettered inscription – “FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY” – which certainly would come in handy in battle or in darkness.

A Barber’s Set

And Foodstuffs

Of course, any veterans museum has to showcase weapons. But the most fascinating items to me at the VUMMM were much more mundane.

At first glance I thought one item I came across was a corpsman’s kit. After all, in the center of the box were a number of scissors, all the better to cut off clothing or soiled bandages.

But it didn’t have a medical use at all because the days of barber-surgeons came to an end in the 18th century. It was actually a barber’s kit, which I should have immediately figured out, considering it contained a safety razor and a lather brush.

Soldiers and Marines need haircuts, and Uncle Sam made sure to take care of their needs in a typical Government Issue (G.I., which soon became a nickname of WWII troops) fashion. The barber’s kit included a list of items with such specifications as “Comb, hair, barber type, any color 7½" lg, tapered, manufacturer’s commercial plastic or rubber material – 2 each.” Or “Cream, shaving, brushless type 4-6 oz tube – 1 each.”

Every little item must be itemized. That’s the military for you, as anybody who has ever been fitted out in boot camp can attest. (I may have been anti-Vietnam War, but I was still a patriot so ended up joining the Coast Guard because of its advertising slogan in the mid-1970s: “The Lifesavers! Coast Guard.”)

Other items that grabbed my attention included two chaplain’s sets, one for Christians that included Communion essentials, and a much simpler one for Jewish members of the armed services.

Then there was the museum’s “Cold War” room, which displayed items found in the fallout shelters of the early 1960s, including a barrel of water, a case of survival crackers and an ancient can of “ham chunks” that I don’t think I would have opened back when it was new.

I was a radioman in the Coast Guard, so I had a special interest in the communications gear the museum had collected. One piece was especially interesting, even more so than the larger military switchboards on display. It was a WWI field phone, used to communicate in the trenches of France.

There were so many interesting items: a case of hand grenades of different sorts; mine detectors, knives and bayonets; a display showing the history of barbed wire; and pins and patches of all sorts, many of which are on sale to support the museum.

The Veterans United Military Memorial Museum is still in its infancy, so don’t expect a huge building and interactive displays such as you would find in the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, or the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. It is still very much a work in progress.

But, folks, all I have to say is, it is neat!

The museum is also quite reasonable. Vets can get in for free with ID. The suggested donation price for adults is only $7 and the donation price drops with age: $4 for those 12 years of age to 18; $3 for kids 3 to 11 years of age; and free for toddlers younger than 3.

Current hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Starting Memorial Day, it will also be open on the same hours each Friday.

“If somebody wants to arrange a special tour for students, please do,” said Comis, who noted the museum’s grounds, being unpaved, cannot handle school buses.

To arrange for a tour or to inquire about booking the museum’s traveling trailer display, call Comis at 609-513-6454.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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