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Military history museum will come to the people

June 26, 2017 (Photo Credit: Carol Comegno/Camden Courier-Post via AP)
TRENTON, N.J. — A nonprofit trying to start an Armed Forces Heritage Museum on the joint military base in Burlington County has changed its plan to educate the public about the state's military history.

Instead of the public coming to a building, the museum will go to the public.

The Courier-Post of Cherry Hill reports the museum board recently unveiled its mobile museum at an exhibit-building company in Burlington Township that converted a tractor trailer into static and video displays set on a 32-foot long retractable wall the length of the trailer.

For nearly seven years the museum board tried to get the federal government to approve a new museum on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which has been closed to the public for heightened security reasons since 9/11, but its effort was unsuccessful.

"This is the culmination of years of work to preserve, interpret and exhibit the importance of more than 200 years of New Jersey military history," museum President Robert von Bargen said at the event at Lynch Exhibits on Campus Drive in Burlington Township.

"At the Pentagon is where our application got stonewalled and it became clear the government did not want another building (at the base). So, if we could not get people to the museum, we decided we would take it to the people."

Von Bargen said his board wanted a public museum on the joint base because the Army Reserve Museum and a Navy museum on the base "are readily accessible to only the military or a military retiree and not to John Q. Public."

He said the mobile museum will make an appearance at the Burlington County Farm Fair from July 18 to 22 on Route 206 in Springfield.

"The rest of our schedule is still tentative because we are still training docents," von Bargen said.

This photo taken June 19, 2017, shows Armed Forces Heritage Museum President Robert von Bargen speaking about the mission of its new mobile museum to tell the story of New Jersey military history.
Photo Credit: Carol Comegno/Camden Courier-Post via AP

The museum features three separate video screens that chronicle the living history stories of 12 military veterans, the 100-year-history of the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington and Ocean counties and advancements in military technology. The exhibit wall also has six static displays that help give context to the video content.

This mobile museum is similar to one used by the New Jersey Hall of Fame. One sidewall of the trailer has been converted to doors that lift up to serve as the exhibit's protective roof and can fold down to cover the museum wall.

The Ewing Township Council donated the trailer to the museum board at the urging of Robert Dutko, president of the Patriotic Committee of Ewing and a museum board vice president. The museum then raised $64,000 from individuals, groups and business donors for its conversion into the mobile museum.

"This is just phase one," said Roy Plummer, chairman of the all-volunteer museum organization who first proposed a museum on wheels. "Our future plan is for a larger trailer museum 52 feet long with expandable sides that will give us 1,000 square feet of space for galleries."

But before that can happen, the board members say they need to raise estimated project financing of $500,000 and operating budget money.

Among the dozen living history videos that play in a continuous loop is the story of 97-year-old Ernest Kaufman of Lumberton. He is a German Jew who survived a Nazi relocation camp before World War II, emigrated to the U.S., joined the Army and using his knowledge of German, assisted the allied forces in the intelligence field.

"He saved thousands of civilians and soldier lives by single-handedly engineering the surrender of a German general and his troops inside German territory a few weeks before Germany surrendered in May 1945," von Bargen said.

Howard Brooks of Mount Laurel was a Japanese POW during World War II and helped build the Burma Railroad in 1942-32, according to his video interview.

The railroad's construction and the POW camp builders were the subjects of the 1957 Academy Award-winning film, "Bridge Over the River Kwai," with William Holden and Alec Guinness.

Brooks died last year, but his wife Sylvia came to the unveiling.

"Oh, it's beautiful," she said of the trailered exhibits as the video of her husband played on the screen. "Fortunately, my husband got to see some of what was going to be in it before he died."

Robert Yancey of Florence, a veteran of three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — also tells his story in a video interview.

Another screen in the current exhibit traces the history of the joint base from its establishment first in 1917 as Camp Dix, where World War I troops were trained. Troops for World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts when the base was known as Fort Dix.

Adjacent Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station in Ocean County, where the helium-filled airship Hindenburg crashed and burned in 1937, was purchased in 1921 by the Navy from the Army. McGuire Air Force Base opened alongside Fort Dix but not until after World War II when the Army Air Corps became the Air Force.

The proximity of all three installations led area civic, political and business leaders to push for their consolidation. In 2004, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission merged the three into the first U.S. tri-service military base, which continues to provide support for the war in Afghanistan, the war in Syria and global humanitarian missions.

The base is an economic engine for the state and its largest employer.

The third screen explains focuses on new aircraft and ships such as the B1 bomber, the Zumwalt Stealth Destroyer and the Joint Strike Fighter jet for the U.S. and some of its allied countries.

Among the museum's financial supporters for the project were the New Jersey National Guard Historical Society, Holman Automotive, defense contractor Lockheed Martin, Beneficial Bank and the Hawkins Group.

"As fabrication partners, Lynch Exhibits performed way above expectations And with great attention to detail," Plummer said.

Lynch Exhibit executives said they were honored to be part of such an important history project.

"This is about storytelling," said Kevin Sweeney, vice president of sales and marketing for Lynch, which builds displays for worldwide companies, "and we built this exhibit to help tell stories that will live on and endure forever."

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