Veterans Memorial Museum
If you are an American war veteran, and you don't throw away your old military gear, odds are that none of your relatives or progeny will, either -- at least for a while. Eventually, however, it has to go somewhere, and a good deal of it ended up in the Veterans Memorial Museum. The purpose of this place is not to honor wars, but the people who fought in them.
Branson, Missouri, is a good spot for the Veterans Memorial Museum. This is a flag-waving town, whose many musical shows call out vets in the audience for standing ovations of appreciation. Finales are filled with rousing patriotic songs and copious displays of red, white, and blue.
Fred Hoppe Jr is the sculptor who designed, financed, built, and wrote all of the exhibit descriptions in the Veterans Memorial Museum. He lives and works in far-away Malcolm, Nebraska, but he bypassed closer cities such as Lincoln, Omaha, Kansas City, and Springfield, just to put his museum here. According to its official literature, "experts" declared that Hoppe would need five to six years to build his museum. He did it in ten months -- and then went back home to Malcolm, Nebraska.
The Veterans Memorial Museum is easy to spot, even among all the eye candy on the Branson strip. Its "sign" is a World War II P-51 Mustang fighter plane on a pole. Inside, one walks through a series of "halls" (rooms), each devoted to vets from a different war. The walls are covered with tiny names, listing alphabetically every U.S. soldier who died. Only the veterans of U.S. wars of the 20th century are honored here.
The World War I room presents a display of "trench art" -- mostly lamps and ash trays made of shell casings -- as well as a horse wearing a gas mask. In the Vietnam room you'll find a Ho Chi Min Trail bicycle with a tin can headlight. There's even a small room devoted to America's recent wars, although the Museum's decision to use their PR names -- Operations Just Cause, Restore Hope, Urgent Fury -- left us civilians confused. Were those our wars against Nicaragua, Grenada, and Panama, or Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia?
The heart of this museum, as you might expect, is "The Good War," WWII. Here you'll find a bronze bust of the Navy's youngest pilot -- George Bush Sr -- next to a display on "GI Joe," the Army's most fearless carrier pigeon (there's also a nod to "Nazi pigeons"). A unique exhibit displays rifles from all ten manufacturers during WWII, including IBM, National Postal Meter, Underwood Typewriter, Rockaway Jukebox, and some guy named "Irwin Pedersen."
Here, too, is the museum's centerpiece, the "world's largest bronze war memorial sculpture," 70 feet long, 15 tons, "valued at 3 million dollars." It depicts 50 life-size World War II GIs -- one from each state -- storming a beach in a remarkably disciplined double-file line. Some of the GIs are famous: Bob Dole is the Kansas soldier, senator Chuck Hagel is the grunt from Nebraska. The charge is led by a comparatively obscure GI, Fred Hoppe Sr, a choice for which Fred Hoppe Jr is unapologetic. Hey, it's his sculpture and his museum.
Our favorite section was the booty hall, or, as it's called here, the "spoils of war exhibit." Filling one wall is a giant Nazi battleship flag -- no explanation as to how an average GI packed that into his duffle bag -- and also displayed are Herman Goering's tea set and Eva Braun's hairbrush. The Museum also claims to exhibit Hitler's dog tag, although we somehow missed it. Maybe we were too dazzled by the battleship flag.
Overall, the Veterans Memorial Museum is subdued and heartfelt. Just don't get the idea that you can give away any of your old war stuff here. The gift shop lady told us that Mr. Hoppe was up to his eyeballs in donations, was tired of people coming in and complaining that theirs wasn't on display, and wasn't accepting any more stuff for now.
Update: A bank foreclosed on the museum in 2011. The museum closed in August 2013, but then reopened in October -- minus a lot of the Nazi war booty, which was sold to pay off the museum's debts.