Guarding history of a nation's wars Museum: Artifacts from two centuries of U.S. military history are collected in the basement of Baltimore's 5th Regiment Armory.

September 13, 1998|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Hidden in the basement of a fortress in the center of the city is a remarkable but little-known treasure trove of memorabilia from every war in American history, collected over two centuries by Maryland National Guardsmen.

Civil War rifles, Japanese sabers from World War II, a jeep that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower rode in, Iraqi chemical syringes and a tumble of other battlefield souvenirs pack five dark rooms beneath the Maryland National Guard's 5th Regiment Armory castle off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

If skinheads got a peek at the wallets, photos and weapons collected from the bodies of Nazi soldiers and carried back to Baltimore by Maryland Guardsmen, says volunteer curator Sgt. Scott Gostomski, they'd have a field day.

There seems little chance of that. The armory doesn't have the money or the staff to open the makeshift museum daily to the public, so it doesn't get many visitors. A few people call to arrange a tour; drop-ins catch volunteers repairing displays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays.

"A lot of people say we're a big secret," said retired Brig. Gen. Bernard Feingold, a World War II veteran and quasi-administrator of the museum.

"There's no way for us to set up like a regular museum because we're all volunteers. People in the Guard, they're so busy training, even they don't come down to see it.

"But we try to do the best we can."

Before the few people who do visit leave, Feingold said proudly, they invariably say it just might be the most impressive collection of war mementos in Maryland.

In 1981, the material was stored in an old paneled room along with knickknacks and the 5th Regiment Armory's 14 books of battle plans -- including the World War II assault on Omaha Beach in France.

Now it's spread down hallways and into closets.

Flags, guns and drums

Thirty flags dating to the early 1800s, a jeep, a half-dozen 8-foot-long machine guns and marching drums jostle for space with iron shot fired from British ships in the War of 1812 and firearms and knapsacks from the Spanish-American War.

In the Civil War room, surrounded by six faded, plastic models in authentic uniforms, is a rare Lincoln mourning pin, the kind Northerners wore after the president was assassinated. In a lounge a flight up is a painting of troops leaving Annapolis in

1776 to join Washington's army.

Forty or so secondhand display cases, some with burned-out lights, hold glimpses into the lives -- and deaths -- of soldiers throughout U.S. history. One case displays a rudimentary German war dental kit, taken from the pocket of a dead field doctor.

The collected belongings of a World War II soldier named Robert Miller fill other cases. The volunteers call him "the pack rat."

A young man from the 5th Regiment, he saved something from every battle he fought in. A photograph of seven young German men drinking at a pub. A photo of a proud German soldier in front of a modest house.

He brought back a silk escape scarf imprinted with a map of France, an inert grenade, his aluminum camp plate and fork. The case also displays Miller's three Bronze Stars, Silver Star and Purple Heart.

Feingold and fellow volunteer curator Gostomski have counted more than 300 medals, more than a few of them German, Iraqi and Soviet.

'All the way home'

"Some people brought home the strangest things from the war," Feingold said, glancing at a black German typewriter in one of the cases. "Like this typewriter. Someone carried this all the way home."

In one case, above a Chinese AK-47 from Saigon, Vietnam, and a Soviet saber from World War II, is a picture of a U.S. general trading his gun for the saber in May 1945.

"They traded all kinds of things," Feingold said. "They got drunk and didn't know what they were doing."

Another photo shows several former Guardsmen receiving a Soviet medal described as the Patriotic War Order of the Second Grade at a postwar celebration. When the soldiers got home and translated the inscription, Gostomski said, the medals turned out to be lifetime tokens to ride a Russian subway.

Since World War II, soldiers have not been allowed to bring back weapons as trophies of war, so they've brought home other souvenirs.

Chemical test kits, antique telephones, gas masks and tourniquets belonging to Iraqi soldiers fill a case in one of the newest displays. More primitive than modern equipment, these items blend in better with the World War I exhibit, Gostomski said, brushing dust off the glass with his sleeve.

Mostly unseen but still cherished, the collection is growing. Items come in every few weeks, sometimes from veterans, sometimes from collectors who've heard about the museum and want to share their keepsakes.

Fort Ritchie, which is closing, sent boxes of historic papers and artifacts for safekeeping; the volunteers have yet to go through them.

Some Guardsmen and, more recently, women members of the Guard will their belongings to the museum. Surviving spouses donate old keepsakes.

"These guys socialized together, married their sweethearts together, went to war together," National Guard spokesman Drew Sullins said about the donors.

"When one of them dies, all the gray hairs come out in force to their funerals. These old guys stick together.

"This is their home, their house. This is where their things belong."

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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