A new war memorial is going up in Gettysburg. But this one won’t retell the stories of heroism at Devil’s Den, Seminary Ridge or Little Round Top during perhaps the most decisive battle of the American Civil War. The nonprofit World War II American Experience Museum aims instead to get visitors to recall the valor of those who served in faraway places like Normandy, Guadalcanal and Kasserine Pass. Behind the project are Frank Buck, a retired Peterbilt truck dealer and long-time collector of World War II memorabilia, and his wife, Loni.
Frank worries that young Americans have forgotten the sacrifices of the World War II generation. He was dismayed that the 80th anniversary of the fall of Bataan — the largest surrender of American forces in history — came and went this year with little attention. “We want to wake them up,” he said.
To do that, the Bucks have invested $7 million to put up three 12,000-square-foot buildings on 30 acres of farmland near their home about five miles northwest of Gettysburg. That sum does not include what Frank has spent over long decades collecting nearly 80 World War II vehicles. In the museum’s garage and exhibition hall are everything from Sherman tanks to a yellow-and-black checked “Follow Me” jeep meant to be eye-catching enough to guide bombers returning from runs over Nazi-occupied Europe safely across landing strips in England.
Some of these instruments of war served specific practical purposes — a motorized shop truck packed full of tools, for example, and armored recovery vehicles that pulled hobbled tanks out of the muck. And there are occasionally intriguing stories behind the machines: a jeep, for instance, that was stolen from an army base on land by the crew of the USS Hancock and given as a gift to the aircraft carrier’s captain.
The Bucks also have a massive collection of World War II uniforms, helmets and weapons that will be on display. The museum, which had a June 18 soft opening and is scheduled to open full-time in October, will have a gift shop and a pub, plus the Bucks plan to have an 18-piece band reenact USO shows at various events throughout the year. They are also restoring and plan to display a “Clubmobile” — from which female Red Cross volunteers (nicknamed Donut Dollies) served coffee and doughnuts.
Frank, 80, has been collecting World War II memorabilia almost all his life. His collection includes a German knife he obtained in his teens. Loni has family ties to the war: her father was a medic in the Pacific, and her uncle was a bomber pilot lost when his B-24 was shot down over Germany in January 1945.
The Bucks chose Gettysburg for reasons other than convenience. The town has a long list of World War II ties: president and D-Day commander Dwight D. Eisenhower maintained a home there. It was also the site of a secret U.S. Navy mapmaking office, an army psychological warfare training camp and a POW camp on the Civil War battlefield where German prisoners worked picking fruits and vegetables. The town has, in fact, applied for American World War II Heritage City status from the National Park Service.
Tickets to the museum will run $14 with discounts for veterans, seniors, children and groups. Donations to the World War II American Experience can be made at the nonprofit’s website: visitww2.org.