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Military museum rises from the muck of Katrina
Question of the Day
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - With the light touch of someone accustomed to handling fragile historic artifacts, Beverly Boyko gingerly pointed to the white crust fused to the scarlet military flag from World War II. The unit flag belonged to a battalion in the National Guard’s historic Washington Artillery, a Jackson Barracks unit that fought through North Africa, Italy and to Germany after the Army federalized its Louisiana soldiers and sent them to the European front.
Perhaps the only such flag still in existence, the Washington Artillery’s colors, designating it as the 935th Field Artillery, had been stored between layers of white tissue paper at Jackson Barracks’ decades-old museum. It was a method of preservation with flaws that became apparent after Hurricane Katrina’s tidal surge pushed through levees and flooded the National Guard post at New Orleans’ border with St. Bernard Parish.
“When Katrina came, it sat in muddy, yucky water for weeks after weeks,” said Boyko, collections manager at the Jackson Barracks Military Museum. The tissue disintegrated, leaving patches of white paper caked on the delicate textile weave.
The flag - like much of the state militia’s collection of history - remains in limbo more than eight years after Katrina, and after the National Guard rebuilt Jackson Barracks. The National Guard lost about 30 percent of its 9,000-piece collection when the military museum flooded. Of the thousands of artifacts and documents that were salvaged, many - like the scarlet flag - have been merely stabilized to prevent further decay until the National Guard finds money to pay for professional restoration.
While the struggle to save pieces of Army and Air National Guard and even Louisiana history goes on, there is a bright spot. The National Guard quietly has reopened what’s now called the Ansel M. Stroud Jr. Military History and Weapons Museum.
Named for the retired adjutant general, the red brick building was erected in the $300 million post-Katrina construction boom. It sits next to the 1837 powder magazine, where the former museum complex stood before the 2005 storm.
The museum’s “soft opening” came in late September, when the nonprofit fundraising arm, Friends of the Louisiana National Guard Museums, kicked off a capital campaign to find sponsors who’ll donate money to restore artifacts and to expand and modernize the museum. The nonprofit raises money for the Jackson Barracks museum and the Louisiana Maneuvers and Military Museum at Camp Beauregard in Pineville.
“It’s not by any means a true exhibit we want to showcase,” Lt. Col. Michael Kazmierzak, the state public affairs officer whose command includes the museums, said of the limited display now at Jackson Barracks.
The state maintains the museum and employs its staff of four - the director, curator, artifacts and collections manager, state military historian - Kazmierzak said. “We just don’t have a state budget to support the actual artifacts, especially the totality of the destruction and the restoration process, in moving from a 1990s museum to a 21st century museum,” he said.
The National Guard does not yet have plans for a grand opening at museum, said its director, Capt. Heather Englehart. She calls the soft opening “a teaser,” or a preview of sorts of what people may expect to see in its 13,000 square feet of display space. “We’ve got a lot more to do, yet where we’ve come from is monumental,” Englehart said.
Apart from the artifacts already on display, banners hang from the ceiling, providing a glimpse of future plans. “It’s really kind of a sampling of what we want to do,” said Rhett Breerwood, the National Guard’s state military historian.
When the work is complete, patrons will be able to follow a chronological history of Louisiana’s Army and Air National Guard from its roots as a colonial militia to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The museum will include a display highlighting the National Guard’s homeland mission of responding to state emergencies.
Katrina will factor heavily in the museum. Looming large just inside the entrance is a Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter, once assigned to Louisiana’s 812th Medical Company. It was one of the more than 150 military helicopters that rushed to the area after Katrina to hoist people from rooftops.
During one rescue operation, one of the Huey’s skids became lodged in a roof, trapping it and leading its crew to abandon it. A news photo of that Huey circulated nationally, and it, too, will be part of the display, Englehart said. The Huey eventually will hang from the ceiling, above a mock-up of a New Orleans rooftop, she said.
The museum’s second floor will be used to highlight National Guard artifacts and displays showcasing some of the more historical figures in the state. Among them is the late Maj. Gen. Raymond Hufft, a New Orleans native who fought in Europe during World War II and is the most decorated soldier from Louisiana.
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