Oxman's Surplus Museum
Santa Fe Springs, California
Looking at war artifacts is never the same as experiencing war firsthand -- we know this. It's a faint yet still instructive echo. That's how we felt when entering the World War II museum at Oxman's Surplus. Not because we'd missed World War II, but worse -- we'd missed touring Oxman's WWII museum with the living "Mr. O."
Jerome "Mr. O" Oxman passed away in 2013. His family-run military surplus business and free storefront museum continues, marked on the street by part of a space shuttle replica. Oxman served in the US Army during World War II, on an Iran supply line. He bought a once super-secret Norden bomb sight for less than 10 bucks in 1950. His own surplus business was founded in 1961.
As Mr. O. accumulated one-of-a-kind items among his merchandise, he got tired of explaining them to customers all day. His military castoffs and oddities developed into a museum of over 1,600 items, all identified with hand-lettered signs.
The collection includes a B-17 bomber cockpit, found buried in the Sahara Desert, with the pilots mummified in their seats; a still working WWII Dog Tag Machine, an 1862 Norwegian whaling harpoon; a pair of shoes designed to survive minefields; an assortment of old bombs and guided missiles; Kamakazi pilot opium pipes; and a "German Milky Way wrapper found crumpled up in a dead German's hand."
Having a fully labeled collection encouraged the public to do self-guided tours, but Mr. O loved to talk about his war stuff -- to vets, to kids. He'd walk groups or families around and answer questions, challenging them to pick up an item, put on a helmet, or climb into the bomber cockpit. And Mr. O would tell well-worn jokes while explaining a particular artifact.
After Jerome Oxman died, his son wanted to preserve a bit of the tour persona, so he made signs around the museum describing what his dad always said at various displays. The sign on the Bullpup Missile: "Mr. O would tell the kids 'If you want a ride - sit on it and I'll light it up and send you to Europe.'"
On a Medusa-like hair perming contraption, the sign recalls: "Mr. O would tell everyone he would give you a perm on the machine after 4:00 PM."
The non-military perm machine dangles next to the Norden bomb sight -- but the eclectic drift of the collection makes it more entertaining. One moment you're marveling at a freakish Devil Fish "caught in very deep water off the coast of Costa Rica," and the next an old combat training poster is showing you how to kill quietly with piano wire.
"This pearl came from a severely constipated oyster." A packet of survival vest shark repellent sits next to a packet of shredded "old" money from the Bureau of Engraving. You'll see it all at Oxman's Surplus.
Part of the museum includes the Mess Tent Cafe, which serves military MRE field rations and chicken nuggets, among other delicacies. Not staffed during our visit, but it seems to be a special event or tour cafe. A display dedicated to Mr. O includes sympathy cards and some of his personal items.
Head into the store, check out the merchandise (and the surplus annex in the back), and you might see a member of the Oxman family. We talked to Mrs. Oxman briefly. Mr. O was never sick a day in his life, she said, until he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. She believes the treatment gave him a stroke and killed him. He made it to 97.