TERRE HAUTE —
A shrine to the history of local veterans has opened to an appreciative crowd.
The Veterans Memorial Museum of Terre Haute hosted its grand opening Sunday, and nearly 200 visitors passed through before 1:30 p.m. Museum founder Brian Mundell said he was happy to see a large number and diversity of veterans attend.
“It’s really been neat to have the veterans here. It’s really for them,” he said, adding it’s important to preserve this history for future generations.
Leighton Willhite echoed those comments outside, seated near a mural which covers the museum’s front at 1129 Wabash Ave. A World War II veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Willhite was 19 years old when he drove a Sherman tank as part of the 5th Tank Battalion, 5th Marine Division, which found itself on a small island named Iwo Jima. There in the South Pacific, he and fellow Marines and sailors fought the Japanese in one of that war’s most epic battles.
“It’s listed today as the most vicious battle in Marine Corps history,” Willhite recalled. “Never before, and never after, has one equaled it.”
Iwo Jima itself is only about 51⁄2 miles long and 21⁄2 miles wide, but some 22,000 Japanese soldiers were entrenched in a 17-mile network of tunnels there. In the 36 days it took the U.S. to secure the island, 7,000 American troops were killed and 19,000 wounded, he said.
“The freedoms of this country did not come cheap,” he added, recalling how everyone in the country participated in some way during World War II. More than 16 million citizens served in uniform, and those who stayed at home worked on behalf of the war effort, which included the rationing of food and supplies for civilian use. To let kids today know of the sacrifices made on their behalf is a good thing, he said.
In addition to Willhite, fellow Iwo Jima survivor George Graesch attended the opening, as did Ferdinand Stauch, who served with Merrill’s Marauders, a U.S. Army special operations unit that fought in the Southeast Asian Theater of World War II.
Mundell said it was particularly special to see the number of World War II veterans come to Sunday’s event, as their ranks are dwindling with the years.
“There’s just not that many of those left,” he said.
The museum, at 1,100 square feet, is packed from floor to ceiling with detailed exhibits. Donated items from area families line the walls, tables and display cases, along with newspaper clippings, pictures and historical explanations. Field medical equipment is displayed alongside radios, rifles and cartridges, as well as uniforms from each branch beginning with World War I. Mundell estimated he had more than 1,000 items on exhibit Sunday.
Jeff Marks served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1986 to 1991, participating in Operation Desert Storm. A friend of Mundell’s, he helped lay the carpet inside the museum along with other manual labor.
“I think it’s an awesome thing,” he said of the effort to recognize local warriors. “You don’t find that in society anymore.”
The outside wall just east of the museum’s front is covered with a large, lighted mural depicting images from World War I. World War II, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts as well as modern wars in the Middle East. The artist, Jim Shepard, visited the museum at its opening.
“I’m a veteran myself, so I was glad to be a part of this,” the Terre Haute native said.
A graduate of Wiley High School and Indiana State University, Shepard served in the U.S. Army from 1972 to 1974 before going on to establish a career as a professional artist, working for the Walt Disney Co. in California. Since then he’s returned to Terre Haute, and said the museum serves a great purpose.
Mundell said he’s always looking for more items to display and hopes the museum continues to grow.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or email@example.com.
Open to visitors
• New Veterans Memorial Museum: The Veterans Memorial Museum of Terre Haute will be open from 2 to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, or by appointment. For more information, call Brian Mundell at 812-208-1396.