After a lot of work and determination G.I. Joe’s Military Living History Museum has opened at its new location.
Just as renovations to the building at 1165b N.C. 11 S. were nearly complete last year and war memorabilia had been moved in Hurricane Florence arrived. Volunteers had only two days to move everything out again. Then the flood came.
Ralph Smith, a volunteer at the museum said it was frustrating after all the renovations that went into the building. All of the photographs, memorabilia and artifacts had to be moved to a building on Queen Street before the flood closed down N.C. 11
Water got in the building and then a second renovation had to be done.
The museum is now a tribute to the men and women of Lenoir County and surrounding counties who fought in wars from World War II to present. But it is also a reminder of the cost of freedom and the tribute required to keep it from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan.
Smith said artifacts are getting harder to find. Veterans from the older wars do contribute or they just end up throwing them away. And it’s too early for veterans of the latest wars to get rid of their artifacts, he said.
“I wish we had some more artifacts from all of them,” Smith said. “Cause a lot of them, children especially, they come through here and look up (at a photograph) and say that’s my granddaddy. That will make an impression on them. They may not care nothing about all this stuff (memorabilia) here. But that will make an impression on them.”
And the walls are full of photographs. Smith points out Sgt. Ray Eubanks of LaGrange in his Army uniform, a medal of honor recipient in WW II. Next to him Eddie Hart, also a soldier in the Army during WW II from LaGrange. Hart ran into a house with fellow soldiers during a battle in Belgium and the house was blown up by a bomb, Smith said.
Hart is buried in Belgium where families there take care of the American soldiers’ graves. Smith said Hart’s sister came in the museum one day and told him three generations of Belgium family members have looked after Hart’s grave since the war.
“Belgium people loved the Americans,” he said.
On the opposite wall is a photograph of a Smith when he was younger, wearing the Army stripes of a staff sergeant when he was in the Vietnam War from 1966-67. Although he doesn’t mention it, Smith was a highly decorated soldier during the war.
As he walked through the museum, Smith pointed out the artifacts from the different wars that include a long gun replica from the Revolutionary War to a small torpedo from WW II. There were also Navy and Marine uniforms from WW II and the Vietnam War, and an Army footlocker with 1940s pin-up girls under the lid.
On another wall were photographs of WACs and WAVEs through the different wars, including Mildred Caroon who became a brigadier general she was in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Caroon, who later became Mildred Bailey, was born in Fort Barnwell and raised in Kinston where her family owned Caroon’s Grocery in East Kinston.
“People don’t realize how important history is,” Smith said. “I don’t agree with all of it. But that was history and that’s the way things happened at that time.”
Eric Cantu, an organizer for the museum, said workers and volunteers worked around the clock just before Hurricane Florence to get everything moved out of the museum.
“It took a lot of work,” he said.
About five years ago G.I. Joe’s Military Living History Museum started on Herritage Street. It stayed there for nearly four years. It officially opened at its new site Feb. 14, Cantu said.
“But we’ve still got a lot more to do,” he said. “We were able to gain more area, thanks to our landlord, so we’ll be able to enlarge.”
Cantu, who was in the Army from 1964-67 and served in the Vietnam War, said he hopes eventually one room is going to be set aside to teach art and wood carving as a therapeutic service for veterans.
There are a few tables in the back of the museum where veterans now gather and talk and the building has good access to the highway. So far the number of visitors has been about 25 to 30 people per day, which is pretty good, Cantu said.
“The community helped bring it together,” he said. “It’s a community effort, and it’s our heritage. This is the heart of the people in this area.”