Veterans Memorial Museum, Branson, MO
When I toured the VETERANS MEMORIAL MUSEUM in the small rural town of Branson, Missouri, in April ’13, I expected to see a standard regional military museum sprinkled with a few dusty military artifacts brought back by souvenir-hunting GIs. Instead, I was astounded at the museum’s world-class exhibits spread out around its 12 professionally designed galleries.
Opened in November 2000, the museum boasts some historical artifacts and artwork that you simply don’t expect to find in a regional veteran’s museum. These include several life-size bronze sculptures of Viet Nam and WWII veterans in action and enough militaria objects to warm the heart of any military enthusiast.
Located in a large building with a log cabin exterior, it’s easy to spot the museum from the street — out front is a full-size P-51 Mustang mounted on a tall brick stand, flying high above 10 beautifully-wrought, life-size bronze sculptures of American soldiers.
Inside, the museum’s galleries are packed with a superb collection of WWII weapons from the U.S, German, Japanese and Soviet armies, plus souvenir Nazi flags taken by GIs, including the flag that flew over Stalag IIIA POW camp. A case full of trench art made from spent shell casings shows remarkable talent on the part of bored soldiers.
Other rare artifacts include a German Lorenz cipher; a concentration camp uniform; a Korean War blood chit used by downed American pilots; a bicycle used by the NVA on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and a silver tea set that belonged to Hermann Göring.
Especially moving were the displays of dozens of uniforms of U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen, accompanied by the stories of the men who wore them.
Captain Billie Melton describes his harrowing experiences driving a B-17 Bomber on missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. Nine times his plane had holes shot in it and twice he lost an engine to mechanical failure. He had to make a forced landing on one occasion, but survived his required 33 missions. His brother served on the same plane, using a different name, because regulations prohibited brothers from being on the same aircrew.
Tank gunner William Morgan’s uniform is displayed; he fought in the Battle of the Bulge. A bust of Ensign George H.W. Bush stands in a glass case, he was the youngest Navy pilot who served in the Pacific Theater.
Other reader boards and exhibits tell the well-researched stories of renowned U.S. outfits like the Tuskegee Airmen, the 17th Airborne Division, the Navajo Code Talkers, and the 10th Mountain Division, to name a few.
Pièce de résistance
Turning into the center gallery I came to a dead stop. I was looking at the museum’s spectacular centerpiece: a 70-foot-long sculpture of 50 American soldiers storming a beach, each figure modeled after an actual combat veteran from each of the 50 states. Weighing 15 tons, it is the world’s largest war memorial sculpture.
The inspiration for the museum came from the stories and sacrifices Fred Hoppe heard from his father, Fred Hoppe, Sr., a highly decorated WWII veteran who passed away in 1994. Fred Hoppe, Sr. served in the 36th Infantry Division and fought at Anzio Beach, Cassino and the Rapido River, and was wounded four times. Fred Hoppe, Sr. is the leading soldier in the sculpture.
Another display that illustrates the blunt end of war is a huge list of names of over 400,000 men and women killed during WWII, and other 20th-century conflicts.
How did such a world-class military museum come to a small rural town like Branson, Missouri? It turns out that few cities in the U.S. honor their veterans as much as this small town. In fact, Branson is the top military reunion destination, hosting over 500 every year. Branson also hosts a weeklong “Veteran’s Homecoming Week” packed with special events and shows that honor veterans of all branches of service, coinciding with the largest Veteran’s Day event in the country.
BRANSON VETERANS MEMORIAL MUSEUM (1250 W. 76 Country Blvd., Branson, MO, 65616; phone 877/554-8387, www.veterans memorialbranson.com) is open 9-5 daily. Admission for adults, $14.95; veterans and military, $13; children, aged 13-17, $10; aged 5-12, $5, and under 4, free.