By Jason Frye | Photography by Mary Ann DeSantis
The Mississippi Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg honors all veterans with dynamic displays, reminding visitors that freedom often comes with a price.
Squatting beside my grandfather in a “foxhole” left by the root ball of a felled tree, I stared down the straight shaft of a branch-turned-bazooka and sighted in on the treads of the bulldozer as it passed. My dad was directing the dozer operator to flatten out a piece of the mountain property he’d just bought, making room for my new home and space for my grandparents. When the moment was right, my grandfather patted the top of my head and told me, “Fire.”
I did. And in my mind, he and I were in France, laying in a ditch alongside 100-year-old hedgerows watching as a column of Panzer tanks rolled by. My grandfather and I had survived the landing at Omaha, had scaled cliffs and tossed dirt clod grenades at German machinegun nests secreted in the trees, and now we were here, two men holding off the reinforcements that might – if we weren’t successful – drive us and our allies into the English Channel and to our fates.
My granddad did these things – stormed the beach at Omaha; scaled the cliffs; shot snipers from trees and lobbed grenades into hives of mortar positions and machinegun nests; loaded and fired bazookas at the treads and engines of Panzers, Tigers, Jagdpanzers; watched his friends die and, at 20 years old, sacrificed some part of himself as he ended the war for young men with whom he would’ve otherwise shared a beer and a story of hard work in the field or forest or mine.
I like to think my grandfather was exceptional, but in reality, his is a common story across the South: he served, he came home, he raised a family. We have a deep-rooted sense of patriotism and military service and for generations we’ve been sending soldiers to battlefields far and near. Some we forget, others we honor, still others we honor for the wrong reasons. But a few miles south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, one museum tells the story of the state’s military contributions with incredible, insightful and impactful exhibits, interactive displays and relics from a number of theaters of war.
The Mississippi Armed Forces Museum, a 36,000-square-foot facility, details more than 200 years of military history from the War of 1812 to present day. A Hall of Honor pays respect to Mississippi’s Medal of Honor Recipients; various tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces stand proud to tell their part of the technological advancements of war; walk through a World War I trench and see a diorama of a Huey helicopter ready to carry the wounded off a battlefield in Vietnam; see the weapons and uniforms enigmatic of each conflict and era of military service. But most importantly, keep alive the stories of the brave men and women who served – and still serve – Mississippi.
Museums like this don’t spring out of the ground fully formed and ready for visitors. The Mississippi Armed Forces Museum started in 1984 with the private collections of two veterans, Donald Evans and Doug White. They secured a space in a warehouse on Camp Shelby and showed their goods to anyone who wanted to see. Soon other veterans and soldiers organizations began feeding them items for display and the collection grew. In 1999, funding from a variety of groups, state and local officials, and the Mississippi Legislature reached a milestone: the construction of a new 26,000 square foot museum. In 2001 it opened, but by 2015 it was time to grow again and it expanded by 10,000 square feet, allowing for more space dedicated to research and offices, leaving 26,000 square feet clear for visitor displays.
I think many Southern Gentlemen of a certain age have an affinity for World War II. Like me, they grew up knowing their grandfathers or fathers sailed or flew or marched through Europe or Africa or the South Pacific. They held them – rightly – as heroes. Often, we forget someone when we tell that narrow view of war, but the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum doesn’t neglect the contribution of women in war.
From battlefield nurses to spies for the Union and Confederacy to heroines stepping out of their traditional roles and onto factory floors, eager to fill the shoes of the fighting men overseas, to pilots and logisticians, women have long served important military roles. The displays at the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum detail their stories and their parts in conflicts foreign and domestic.
It’s important we remember everyone war touches, to honor their struggles and tell their stories. Not so the next generation of grandsons can kneel in a foxhole and fire imaginary bazookas at enemies that aren’t there, but to remember the humanity of everyone on every side of every conflict. The Mississippi Armed Forces Museum helps us remember the lessons learned by the generations who have served so honorably.
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