DANVILLE — Among the things you'll find at the Vermilion County War Museum: muskets, M-16s, uniforms, flags, a diving suit, handguns (rendered unusable), personal letters and maps.
What you wouldn’t expect to see is Hitler’s toilet handle from his Eagle’s Nest, or a large string-bass fiddle used by a military musician.
President Jim Kouzmanoff said there are easily 100,000 items in the 1903 building that used to be the Carnegie Library Building.
“Things just keep coming in,” he said.
“A day doesn’t go by without a new donation,” added Susan Miceli, development manager at the museum.
The museum is turning 20 on Veterans Day, noted Kouzmanoff. The items are donated by veterans and family, but somebody has to pay for the heating and air conditioning. Only two years ago, the museum held its first-ever capital campaign.
The museum is almost 14,000 square feet, and displays memorabilia and artifacts from the Revolutionary War to the latest military actions.
Especially prominent right now are photos and other memorabilia donated by Korean War Lt. Julius Hegeler II, who died July 5.
“Mr. Hegeler was a true war hero,” said Miceli, and the display is fairly large.
There’s a copy of his Distinguished Flying Cross, for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” His jet heavily damaged a Soviet-built fighter in 1953.
The highlight is the leather bomber jacket actually worn by him at the end of the Korean War, where he was on the last flight into the war zone.
“We asked him if we could clean it,” Miceli said. Only with great care, Mr. Hegeler said, because his name and military insignias were painted on it.
There are a couple of photos of the young man with his F-86 Sabre, America’s first swept-wing fighter to take on the Soviet MiG-15 in dogfights over Korea.
Having broken the sound barrier, Hegeler has a “Mach Buster” certificate.
Nearby is an enormous Navy radio from 1951, long before the late University of Illinois Professor John Barden invented the transistor with two others at Bell Labs.
“There were 16 to 18 of these on an aircraft carrier,” Kouzmanoff said, to communicate with planes, other ships and the land.
But the greatest part of the collection is comprised of objects from World War II, Kouzmanoff said, even Nazi uniforms and helmets brought back home by the men who fought them to the death.
It was “the Good War” and veterans were proud of fighting the enemy that killed six million Jews, as well as the Japanese who made a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and other islands.
The next large war was very different.
“Many Vietnam veterans ended up tossing their collection into the trash,” Miceli said, with the nation divided by that war.
In the World War II collection, there are pin-up girls of the time, coconuts mailed home from “somewhere in New Guinea, 1944,” uniforms, mortar shells and electronic equipment, but the highlight of that war’s collection is the D-Day collection put together by Jim Jones of Catlin.
He was on the USS Harding on June 6, 1944, D-Day. The Harding delivered close gunfire support to the troops ashore in the first hours of the landing.
In fact, it was the closest ship to Omaha Beach, Jones noted. He fired shells from a 20-millimeter shells to soften up the German defenders. There’s even a log book of the ship’s actions on D-Day.
Hitler’s toilet handle from Berchtesgaden was small enough for a local doctor to smuggle it out in his pocket, Miceli said.
The Civil War collection includes medical equipment and uniforms.
From World War I, there’s a Maxim machine gun invented by American-born Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884. But this is a German gun.
It was not a favorite of the American military during that war, Kouzmanoff said, because it took three men to carry it.
“The U.S. wanted one man, one gun,” he said.
The latest acquisitions include current camouflage uniforms for desert warfare in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.