1945: The Battle of Berlin.
1945: The Battle of Berlin.

Military Antiques and Penry Museum

Field review by the editors.

Petaluma, California

Military museums fortify every corner of the United States, wherever war artifacts can enjoy their hard won freedom to be displayed. In Petaluma, a hidden treasure trove honors veterans and illuminates fascinating aspects of 20th century wars. It operates within a 6,000 sq. ft military antiques store in the basement of an antiques business.

Bowl Them Over! Axis leader kingpins.
Bowl Them Over! Axis leader kingpins.

It's the Sgt. Richard A. Penry Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial Military Museum. Inside the storefront entrance, the Petaluma Collective staff politely pointed us to back stairs. On descent, a recorded sonar ping immediately detected our presence -- in a green ocean of secondhand military uniforms, equipment, and regalia. Military Antiques Store co-owner Jason Yarnall told us the museum opened in 1999.

British Bunker

Employee (and Vietnam War veteran) Mark Weston offered to give a tour, and led us to an entrance resembling a WWII British bunker, with heavy steel doors. "That's plywood," Weston said. Next to the doors was a spherical gun and a viewport, where a swiveling mannequin head scanned for trouble.

This is the first in a series of animated mechanical effects and sound effects offering tiny rewards among the mannequins and battle scenes. Chatter emanates from a field radio. A clap of a visitor's hands triggers an artillery barrage light show along a trench.

Though there is representation from World War I and the Vietnam War, the museum primarily focuses on World War 2 (1941-45). Mark Weston pointed to a row of German army helmets along the ceiling -- each black and sinister, but also decorated with sloppy, hand-painted swastikas. One swastika is backwards. Mark said "These helmets were brought home by GIs, who probably added that. Back then it might have been kept as a trophy, or the soldier's kids might wear it to play."

British bunker entrance to the museum.
British bunker entrance to the museum.

Penry Museum antique war items were acquired through many sources. When the museum's experts spot something appropriate, it might end up here. Families of deceased vets approach the store to sell or donate old uniforms, equipment and medals. Each item tells a personal story -- some detailed on signs, or recounted by guides. A military nurse contributed her uniforms and memorabilia, and also her husband's Army pilot uniforms -- along with a wedding photo of the pair.

Very personal leg bone art carved by a WWI British soldier.
Very personal leg bone art carved by a WWI British soldier.

There's Nazi regalia in some displays. A posted disclaimer assures that the museum "has no sympathies with any past or present parties or military regimes....except the United States of America! Our items are offered for historical, educational, reference, or collecting value only."

Trench Art

Several cabinets present "Trench Art" -- hand carvings and art by soldiers waiting for the next battle or artillery pounding. "The Trench Art is interesting -- this piece is fascinating," Weston said, gesturing to a carved off-white cup -- a match holder made by a wounded soldier from his own leg bone during his 1916 convalescence at a French hospital.

Bowling Pins of Evil

The wartime sentiment of America's bowling public is conveyed in a display of three 15" bowling pins decorated with caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini and "Tokyo Joe" Tojo (with his Rising Sun hat and fangs). During the war, these three "kingpins" were the focus for home front ire and war industry motivation. A propaganda poster advised: "Bowl Them Over - More Production." The cartoon details would be hard to see at a regulation length bowling alley; these Axis leaders instead probably endured up-close retribution at a carnival or amusement pier.

Jimmy Doolittle's Good Luck Scarf

Equipment, uniforms and Afrika Corps desert scene.
Equipment, uniforms and Afrika Corps desert scene.

A vintage magazine ad includes a photo of Lt. Col. James Doolittle holding a newspaper with a photo of a B-25 bomber and the headline "Tokyo Bombed" (subhead: "Yes sir, that's my baby!"). Mark Weston told us that Doolittle's good luck silk scarf is a relatively recent acquisition. Doolittle was commander of the daring 1942 raid on the Home Islands of Japan. His 16 B-25B Mitchell medium bombers flew so far to reach targets undetected that they crash landed in China, the Soviet Union, or ditched at sea. Doolittle survived his crash (thanks, Good Luck Scarf!) and received the Medal of Honor (double thanks!).

War propaganda-style Japanese soldier mannequin.
War propaganda-style Japanese soldier mannequin.

We asked if Doolittle actually wore this scarf on the raid. "It's his scarf." A sign notes that his silk scarf helped him win the prestigious Thompson Trophy in the 1932 Cleveland Air Race, and that "It later went on the raid he led against Japan on 18 April 1942." Doolittle provided a letter of provenance attesting to the authenticity of his scarf.

Hitler's Airplane Seat

The passenger seat is from Adolf Hitler's Junkers JU 52/3M, a 1930s era German transport plane that was the Third Reich equivalent to Air Force One. A sign on the seat warns visitors: "Please, Do Not Sit." A photo shows Hitler, onboard in an identical chair. Nearby this exhibit is an Adolf piggy bank, and a Winston Churchill head decoratively balanced on a hand grenade.

Battle Dioramas

In the small space of the museum, several dioramas use related artifacts and war antiques to convey the atmosphere of large, complicated battles. The 1944 Battle of the Bulge is a snow-covered scene of "Hitler's Christmas Present," where soldier dummies in white camouflage endure the attack. In the 1945 Battle of Berlin, as the Nazi regime is decimated by unseen Russians, a Third Reich soldier sits in a gas mask, another dies bleeding on the floor in front of a swastika flag, and a radio broadcasts in desperate German. In the background, a child mannequin in Hitler Youth garb waves a cheery "Sieg Heil."

Hitler's Christmas Present: Battle of the Bulge.
Hitler's Christmas Present: Battle of the Bulge.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Pacific Theater ~1944-45, soldiers stand on the porch of Japanese Regimental Headquarters. A "Superior private" dummy is reminiscent of dehumanizing caricatures from WW2, with buck teeth and Tojo fangs. These are "exaggerated features used in Allied anti-Axis propaganda," according to the accompanying sign.

The Horrors of War

Vietnam War hero Sgt. Richard A. Penry.
Vietnam War hero Sgt. Richard A. Penry.

A low wooden chest labeled "The Horrors of War" is also labeled "ADULTS." It serves to spare children from having their skin seared off by viewing its contents, although anyone can sneak a peek by lifting the lid. Inside are a few grisly body part war souvenirs and photos of horrific wounds.

Sgt. Penry's Heroism

The display about Sgt. Richard A. Penry fits in a large cabinet, featuring a mannequin in one of his uniforms and his Medal of Honor. After reading about Penry's actions under enemy fire, we understood why the town was still proud of their native-born hero, a 1966 Petaluma H.S. grad.

In Vietnam, Penry's platoon was preparing for an ambush mission when, according, to his Medal of Honor citation, they "suddenly came under intensive enemy attack from mortars, rockets and automatic weapon fire." Men all around him were seriously wounded, including the company commander. Penry, the only soldier not injured, dashed outside the perimeter to retrieve a working radio to call in an evacuation, then fought back a force of approximately 30 Viet Cong. He ultimately carried 18 wounded comrades to an extraction site. President Richard Nixon awarded him the Medal in June 1971.

The scenario seemed eerily familiar. Uh, "Forrest Gump?" The guys at the museum voiced the same conclusions -- that Penry inspired the movie's ambush and rescue scenes (they don't particularly recommend Gump for war realism, with its inauthentic Nam scenes shot in South Carolina, augmented with computer generated backgrounds).

Richard Penry returned to Petaluma, working as a chef, and like many vets he had long-term problems adjusting to post-war life. A 1973 story in the New York Times was headlined: "War Hero Faces Cocaine Charges," and Penry continued to stray into trouble, though public sentiment favored leniency for the war hero. Penry passed away in May 1994 (Forrest Gump was released two months later.)

Mark Weston said "Penry died young," and that along with the WW2 and Korean War vets, Vietnam era veterans are disappearing. He points out there may be "less than 100,000 remaining who saw combat." Weston himself dropped out of college, signed up in 1968, was wounded and received Purple Hearts while in the 101st Airborne. "You want to see realism in a Vietnam movie, in a real jungle where the actors visibly sweat -- see Hamburger Hill. That's where I got shot up."

Military Antiques and Penry Museum

Sgt. Richard A. Penry Museum

Address:
300 Petaluma Blvd N, Petaluma, CA
Directions:
Petaluma Blvd N and Prospect St.
Hours:
Th-Su 10-5:30 (Call to verify)
Phone:
707-763-2220
Admission:
Free.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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October 19, 2019

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