Relics from wars past find home in Ozarks museum

Monday, November 22, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- The telegrams are photocopies, but the medals are real.

So are the dog tags and the Third Reich currency and the knife and fork. The spoon is a replacement.

These are the relics from George Copeland's 16 months, 10 days and four hours as a prisoner of war between 1944 and 1945. They rest inside a small glass-front case at the Air and Military Museum of the Ozarks, an all-volunteer not-for-profit tucked into a brick building on East Kearney Street.

The museum -- AMMO -- contains items, big and small, from almost every American conflict.

"We have things from the Civil War through the Gulf War, and they've meant something to somebody," said Raymond Hopper, who founded the organization in 1988.

"Each thing has been earned, not given. Earned."

Copeland earned his things beginning June 18, 1944, the day the Air Force B-24 gunner with the 448 Bomb Group was shot down by the Germans.

"Five combat missions," Copeland said when asked how many times he flew. "They shot me down on the fifth one."

Ten men were on the plane. Nine survived to be captured.

The two photocopied telegrams -- Copeland has the originals -- informed his family in Kansas that he was missing in action and then, a few weeks later, that he was a POW.

Both sets of dog tags -- those issued by the Air Force and the Germans -- are on display. So is his membership in the Caterpillar Club -- so named for the silk from which original parachutes were made.

"If you ever jump out of a plane because you have to, you can become a member," Copeland said.

And how did he think to keep his German-issued knife and fork?

"I don't know," Copeland said, shrugging and smiling slightly. "They'd been a good friend. If you had something to eat, you had something to eat it with."

His ordeal included the forced 600-mile march during February, March and April 1945 -- the harshest European winter in years -- across northern Germany, during which some 1,500 soldiers died. Copeland was liberated by the British on May 2, 1945, and he returned home June 28.

Like many veterans or their families, Copeland has donated the items from his time as a POW. Other artifacts, such as the 1968 Kaiser Jeep M725, are acquired at auction. The jeep, used as an ambulance, was declared surplus in 1973, sent to Strafford for civil defense during the Cold War and bought by the museum in 1993.

As much as they can

"We cover as much military equipment as we can," said Harry Carr, a volunteer and World War II Army veteran who can tell you anything you want to know about tanks and trucks.

Consider the two-person Vietnam-era Cobra helicopter, housed in the back of the building with the other large equipment.

"It's strictly a war machine," Carr said. "It can do a lot of damage."

Schoolchildren are frequent visitors, Carr said, and are especially amazed at the Teletype machines and typewriters -- all genuine and in working order -- which they've never seen. Several old-school dog-tag machines still work.

Smaller items are tucked into glass cabinets. Check out the $50 note, No. 7470, hand-signed and issued by the Continental Congress on Sept. 26, 1778. On the note's left side is a pyramid, a design feature similar to one on today's $1 bill.

Look at a pre-1926 U.S. Army Cavalry sword; Vietnam War jungle boots; World War II Airborne jump boots, leggings, helmet and cartridge belt.

Marvel at the small, wooden chain link with a ball inside carved by Carr's grandfather, also named Harry Carr, a 16-year-old Texan in the Confederate Army who made the piece in 1865 after being captured by Union troops in Tennessee.

Some items are unexpected, such as a small piece of the Hindenburg, which crashed May 6, 1937, in Lakehurst, N.J. Nearby are a Russian officer's cap and a pair of goggles used at the first atomic test July 16, 1945.

These items, big and small, are everywhere. More stuff sits in storage.

AMMO, which is funded by members and donations, has plans for its own building, Hopper said. Such a space would reinforce the museum's purpose: preservation and education, particularly for the young.

"These are the people we're trying to make contact with, because they're the future of the organizations, the whole U.S.," said Hopper, who was a member of the Air Force's now-disbanded Strategic Air Command between 1961 and 1966. "We're not warmongers."

Hamilton finds reason for encouragement.

"We're getting younger people now. People in their 30s and 40s. They're wondering what happened during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. ... More than anything we want to be an educational facility."

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