Iowa Gold Star Military Museum Pays Tribute to Veterans

By Dave Rasdal, Reporter

The Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge, Johnston, welcomes nearly 25,000 visitors a year. Photo was taken Monday, Nov. 5, 2012. (Dave Rasdal/The Gazette-KCRG)

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By Belinda Yeung

JOHNSTON, Iowa — You can peer through a nuclear attack submarine’s periscope and gaze around Camp Dodge here, even sighting in on the general’s quarters.

You can push a button to make the machine guns flash on a life-size replica of a P-40 Tomahawk fighter painted with a toothy grin from World War II.

You can salute all of Iowa’s war veterans, including several dozen Medal of Honor recipients as far back as the Civil War, as you walk through the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum.

More than 23,000 people did so as they visited the museum in 2011.

“We think we’ll break the 25,000 barrier this year,” says Col. Greg Hapgood, director of public affairs and strategic communications for the Iowa National Guard. “We keep getting 1,000 or 2,000 more each year.”

The museum has grown from a handful of displays in the room of a chapel in 1985 to about 38,000 square feet of exhibit and storage space. It has 328 small arms of all persuasions, from American and German to Spanish and Chinese, in the gun room; more than 6,000 books about war in the research library; and about 140,000 donated items neatly stored on hangers and shelves in the behind-the-scenes storage area.

Always a work in progress — the museum nearly doubled in size with an addition in 2009 — the latest major exhibit pays tribute to four Iowa pilots of the famed “Flying Tigers,” a volunteer group that flew from Burma to defend China in the early days of World War II.

A replica of the P-40 Tomahawk suspended from the ceiling last month is painted in the color scheme of the plane flown by Bill Reed, a Marion pilot who recorded nine aerial kills with the “Flying Tigers” and later, the Army Air Force. He was killed on Dec. 19, 1944, while bailing out of his disabled aircraft over China.

Since Reed was both a hero and a victim of the war, his plane serves as a perfect symbol for the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum, says curator Michael Vogt.

Beginning in World War I, families would display a blue star at their homes to signify a member in the service. A gold star meant the family had lost someone in the service.

While Vogt, 44, didn’t serve in the military, his father was in the Air Force. Vogt graduated from high school in Gladbrook and has, among photos on his office wall, one from when he was 7 sitting in a replica red, white and blue biplane made by his father for the town’s annual Corn Carnival in 1976.

Vogt earned a master’s degree at UNI with a thesis about Iowa in the Spanish-American War, then worked for the Historical Society of Marshall County before coming to this museum in 1999.

As the only federally recognized repository for military artifacts in the state, The Iowa Gold Star Military Museum is supported by the state (state employees and state-owned building), the military because it’s at Camp Dodge and through donations to the non-profit Iowa National Guard Memorial Association.

Iowans have generously donated items through the years, each of which Vogt considers before accepting.

“I make a decision on everything that comes through the door,” he says. “If it fits a niche in our collection. If it tells a good story about an Iowa veteran.”

Vogt says he is amazed at the variety as he walks past hundreds of uniforms, equipment and other artifacts in the storage area.

“We get things donated to the collection that beg me to ask, ‘How did this survive?’ We have toilet paper with Kaiser Wilhelm’s (WWI) caricature on it,” Vogt says.

A collection of Reed’s memorabilia, including the suitcase he carried off to war, were donated by his nephew, Ed Reed of Omaha, Neb. They’re displayed behind glass to add authenticity to the P-40 Tomahawk overhead.

The life-size replica joins genuine machinery, from a Word War I German artillery piece and a World War II M3 Half-Track armored troop carrier to helicopters from the Vietnam and Desert Storm war eras.

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