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Beckley museum showcases a century of military artifacts

Kenny Kemp
Museum volunteer Joshua Brooks eyes a case of USS West Virginia artifacts in a room dedicated to the World War II battleship in the Raleigh County Veterans Museum.
Kenny Kemp A cell door from the Dachau concentration camp is the centerpiece of a Holocaust exhibit at the museum.
Kenny Kemp Weapons, uniforms, insignia and other military gear from World War II fill one section of the museum.

Read about the USS West Virginia model here.

 

BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Although the Raleigh County Veterans Museum's centerpiece is the 20-foot long scale model of the battleship USS West Virginia, the museum displays thousands of other military artifacts to help tell the stories of conflicts ranging from the labor movement's Battle of Blair Mountain to the war in Afghanistan.

Exhibits range from a door used to contain inmates in a cellblock of the infamous Dachau concentration camp in Nazi Germany to a crossbow used by Montagnard tribesmen allied with U.S. troops in the Vietnam War.

One room is dedicated exclusively to helmets worn by military personnel from all branches of the service, both friend and foe, from World War I on, while another contains field gear, weapons, flags, uniforms and emblems from Allied and Axis combatants in World War II.

A display covering World War I includes a hand-cranked noisemaker used to warn entrenched doughboys of an attack, while a display focusing on the Vietnam War includes a brick from the infamous Hoa Lo prison, better known to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton.

While its presence might not yet be known statewide, "this is the best military museum in the state," said museum director James Toler.

Founded by a group of Raleigh County veterans in 2001, the museum is contained in a former home with a modular addition facing Harper Road, a short distance off the West Virginia Turnpike's Harper Road exit.

Toler and volunteer Joshua Brooks, a 16-year-old walking encyclopedia of military history, maintain the exhibits and help interpret them for visitors.

Next to the huge USS West Virginia model, which he spent 17 years building, the exhibit Toler is most proud of is the Dachau concentration camp cell door, an artifact that recently came into the museum's inventory.

The door apparently came into the possession of a U.S. Army officer who was stationed near the Bavarian death camp after World War II, and had it shipped home to West Virginia with furniture and other personal possessions when his tour of duty there ended.

One day, a female relative of the officer called Toler and asked if the museum was interested in a door from a Nazi concentration camp, which she initially identified as Auschwitz.

"I said to myself, 'Oh, sure,' but I told her to bring it by and we'd take a look at it," Toler said. "When she got here, Josh got on his computer and started calling up pictures of German concentration camp doors" and the two began comparing them to the artifact in the woman's truck.

They determined that the door came not from Auschwitz, but more likely came from Dachau, Germany's first concentration camp, which the Nazis used as a model for the camps that followed.

Toler and Brooks checked the hardware on the door, some of which was still being made by German manufacturers, to see if authentic, time-appropriate hinges, locks and other fixtures were used. As it turned out, they were.

"I about had a stroke," Toler said. "It was real. It came from the bunker block, where people deemed enemies of the state were kept."

The door is now the centerpiece of a Holocaust exhibit at the museum that includes photographs of Dachau from the collection of the late Gen. Shirley Donnely of Crab Orchard, an Army chaplain during World War II, along with scrip from the SS canteen at the Buchenwald death camp and other items.

"Without question, the Dachau door is the most extraordinary Holocaust relic in West Virginia and one of the larger Holocaust relics in the United States," Toler said.

Toler said many items displayed at the museum were donated by veterans and their families, including out-of-state visitors who stopped at the museum while making a trip on the Turnpike and returned with artifacts from their closets and garages.

"And you would not believe how many hollows I've been up" to follow up on calls about prospective museum pieces, he said.

Toler said he hopes the collection assembled so far "will be the basis for a statewide veterans museum. That's what our board wants and what our veterans deserve."

The Raleigh County Veterans Museum is located at 1557 Harper Road in Beckley. Operating hours are from 1 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. For more information, call 304-253-1775 or fisit www.rcvm.org.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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