- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) - Salem is home to what may well be the largest collection of military uniforms in Oregon.

They stand in neat, orderly ranks, like a battalion at parade rest: more than 1,500 complete uniforms from every branch of the service, cleaned and pressed and restored to all their former glory.

But they’re not on display in a museum.

Instead, they’re hidden away in the attic of the local VFW post, where a small cadre of devoted volunteers labors to preserve a part of their state’s rich military heritage and hopes that, someday, the collection will move into more suitable surroundings.

“Eventually we hope to have a place of our own,” said Herman “Mac” MacDonald, the 86-year-old veteran who started the project. “But we operate on a shoestring. If someone would like to donate a building, we’d be happy to take it.”

MacDonald served in Korea with the Marines and completed three tours of duty in Vietnam before retiring from the service with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He started collecting military uniforms in 1998 as part of an effort to educate young people in the Salem area.

“I was talking to students at different schools,” MacDonald said. “They had no idea what the military was or the history of the military.”

MacDonald decided he needed a prop - a uniform he could show the kids to illustrate what he was talking about. He found what he was looking for in an antique shop somewhere outside of Salem. He’s forgotten the name of the town, but he remembers the uniform in vivid detail.

“It belonged to a chief boatswain’s mate by the name of Cook, U.S. Coast Guard,” MacDonald recalled. “I went in and told them what I was going to do, and they gave it to me at no cost.”

MacDonald began taking the uniform with him on his classroom visits, along with a small placard with information about Boatswain Cook’s service record. Soon people began to seek him out.

“It’s usually word of mouth,” he said. “People hear about it and then they’ll call us.”

Sometimes it’s a veteran or current service member who wants to donate one of his or her old uniforms. More often it’s a widow or surviving child of a veteran who’s passed on. They’re not sure what to do with the uniform, but they can’t bring themselves to sell it or give it to a thrift store. It means something to them, and they want to make sure it’s properly preserved and treated with respect.

“They just don’t want the uniform to go into the Goodwill,” said Jim Hardy, an Army veteran who helps take care of the collection along with ex-Marine Jerry Brixius and Air Force vet Tom Vanderhoof. Like MacDonald, they all served in Vietnam and belong to Post 661 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, where they get plenty of help from other volunteers.

From donation to restoration

When someone calls with a prospective donation, one of the VFW volunteers will make an appointment to meet them at the donor’s home, where they’ll typically spend one or two hours discussing the uniform and the veteran who wore it. The volunteer will gather as much information as possible about the veteran and, whenever possible, obtain a photograph of the service member.

Sometimes donors are reluctant to part with particular patches, medals or ribbons that go with the uniform, and that’s OK.

“If they’re undecided about something, we separate that out and let them keep it,” Vanderhoof said. “The family comes first.”

Once a donation is accepted, the uniform is sent out to be cleaned and, if necessary, mended. An 82-year-old Salem woman named Mabel Valech volunteers her skills as a seamstress.

Occasionally a donated uniform arrives complete in every detail, but that’s more the exception than the rule. Usually, some amount of restoration is needed.

“We had one uniform come in and the gentleman only had his Ike jacket,” Hardy said, “so we had to scrounge up the shirt and the pants.”

In many cases, they have the spare parts they need on hand. The group has a collection of 500 uniform pieces, stored in plastic totes full of mothballs in the VFW post basement.

If they can’t supply the missing garments from their own cache, they’ll order them from a military supply house.

The same goes for many of the other items that go into making up a military uniform: rank insignia, collar bars, medals, ribbons, unit patches and so on. The group keeps some spares on hand and can order others as needed.

To make sure each uniform carries all the marks of rank and distinction its owner was entitled to wear, the volunteers obtain a copy of the veteran’s discharge papers from the National Archives in St. Louis. The documents contain important details about a veteran’s service record, including date and place of induction and discharge, rank, military education and job specialty, foreign deployments and citations, badges and decorations received.

Together with the personal data provided by the donor, those details form the basis of a biographical record the group keeps on file for each uniform in the collection.

Sometimes the discharge papers provide the only available information about a uniform’s owner. That was the case with one Marine vet who left the Corps after 24 years of service. When he died alone in a boarding house, no family members came forward to claim his effects, and his passing might have gone entirely unmarked if his landlord hadn’t decided to donate his lance corporal’s uniform to the VFW.

“We got real lucky with this one,” said Vanderhoof, pulling the man’s discharge papers from a manila folder. The group was able to obtain the document, a standard Defense Department form known as a DD 214, by matching the name and rank on the uniform the dead man left behind.

“Nobody knew him; he passed away,” Vanderhoof mused. “(His landlord) wanted to sell the property, and they found all of his stuff in a closet.”

Now the unknown Marine’s old uniform has been fully restored and added to the collection at VFW Post 661.

The collection

The collection resides at the top of a steep, creaky staircase in the VFW hall’s attic, and it’s difficult to take it in all at once.

Today, 18 years after Mac MacDonald acquired the first piece, the collection has grown to between 1,500 and 1,600 uniforms from all six branches of the service: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.

Each fully restored uniform, carefully cleaned and pressed, is draped over a sort of half-mannequin shaped like a human torso and covered in a clear plastic dry-cleaning bag. Pinned to the front of each uniform is a single-page biography of the veteran who wore it, usually accompanied by a photo.

Grouped together by branch, the uniforms hang in long lines on homemade racks pieced together from plumber’s pipe, receding into the shadows beneath the eaves of the steep-pitched attic roof.

The variety of uniform types in the collection is dizzying: battle fatigues and full dress uniforms, flight suits and dinner jackets in all sorts of colors and fabrics. Roughly 90 percent of the uniforms were worn by Oregonians, and more than 300 of them belonged to women.

The oldest item in the collection dates back to 1915, a uniform worn by a U.S. soldier in the so-called Border War, when Pancho Villa’s irregulars staged a raid into New Mexico and Gen. John J. Pershing led an American expedition back across the border in pursuit of the revolutionary leader. Among the most recent are two sets of desert camouflage fatigues worn by an Army National Guardsman in Iraq.

The attic holds uniforms worn by four Army generals, a Flying Tiger, a B-25 gunner who flew in Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo and three Japanese-Americans who fought for the United States in Italy during World War II. There are uniforms worn by two members of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division, the unit whose wartime experiences were chronicled in the TV miniseries “Band of Brothers.”

The collection holds the uniforms of Navy Cross winners, Distinguished Service Cross winners and an astonishing seven Medal of Honor winners, including one worn by Robert Dale Maxwell. A communications technician with the Army’s 3rd Infantry, Maxwell was presented with the nation’s highest military decoration for his heroic actions during the Allied invasion of France in 1944, when he threw himself on top of a grenade to save his comrades. He recovered from his wounds and today is the nation’s oldest surviving Medal of Honor winner and the only one still living in Oregon.

There’s even a small assortment of foreign uniforms, from allies like the British and South Koreans to enemies like the Nazis and Vietcong.

Most uniform collections that size are in museums, said Gil Sanow, co-founder of the Association of American Military Uniform Collectors in Elyria, Ohio.

“That is quite large for a private holding,” said Sanow, whose personal collection once numbered 350 uniforms, including more than 100 attributed to Army generals.

“Most people specialize,” he added. “Just by pure volume and all services, that’s a fantastic collection.”

Sanow was impressed by the attention to detail and commitment to authenticity the Salem vets showed in restoring the uniforms with complete sets of insignia, ribbons and unit patches.

“One thing you have to understand is we’re not just talking about old clothes,” he said. “A military uniform is a time capsule. . You’re basically looking at a history of the owner’s career. It tells a story.”

It’s difficult to gauge just how the Salem VFW’s collection stacks up against museum holdings. There are a number of uniform collections housed in institutions across the country, but as Sanow points out, many of them are devoted to a particular branch of the service or historical period.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., has a wide-ranging collection numbering about 8,000 pieces, but not all of them are parts of complete uniforms.

By far the biggest institutional collection in Oregon belongs to the Oregon Military Museum at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas, which has about 1,300 complete uniforms from all branches of the service among its 14,000 artifacts, according to curator Tracy Thoenes. That collection spans a time period from the Spanish-American War to the present day, and all the uniforms have some connection to Oregon.

Those uniforms, however, are not currently available for public viewing. The Oregon Military Museum has been closed for a major renovation and expansion project since 2009. Thoenes said a fundraising drive to complete the work is about halfway to reaching its $16.4 million goal, and no reopening date has been set.

Looking for a home

The Salem veterans have no aspirations to rival the Oregon Military Museum, but they would like to have more room to store their ever-growing collection of uniforms and display them to the public.

But, as the Camp Withycombe project demonstrates, museum construction doesn’t come cheap. And it’s not just about display space - much of the cost is tied up in ensuring the long-term preservation of the collection.

“The most important thing is a storage facility that is temperature-controlled, humidity-controlled and secure,” said Nicole Yasuhara, collections manager for the Oregon Historical Society Museum.

Time can take a terrible toll on textiles, noted Mary Gallagher, collections manager for the Benton County Historical Museum. To keep the uniforms from deteriorating, each garment needs to be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and stored in an archival-quality box.

“Storing that kind of material, exhibiting it, managing it is a very costly affair,” Gallagher said. “Not every organization can do that.”

Money is one thing VFW Post 661 just doesn’t have. The organization gets a trickle of cash donations to support the collection, most of which goes toward purchasing clothing items, collar bars, ribbons and other essentials to complete uniform restorations.

The Salem vets have made some efforts over the years to attract financial support for their cause, but they’re soldiers, not grant-writers. The realm of big-time fundraising is simply foreign to their experience.

“We tried to get a building through the Oregon Legislature,” Hardy said. “We got axed and told to come back next time.”

They could donate their 1,500-plus uniforms to a large museum, assuming they could find one willing to take them all, or break up the collection and piece it out to a number of smaller institutions. But that would entail giving up control of the uniforms and possibly seeing them dispersed all over the country.

Sanow raises another possibility: They could sell off part of the collection to help finance a building to store and display the rest.

“A lot of people are interested in this stuff,” he pointed out. “It does change hands every now and then - sometimes for hundreds or thousands of dollars.”

That’s not going to happen, Hardy insisted.

“We don’t sell,” he said. “We never sell anything.”

Soldiering on

For now, the members of VFW Post 661 will keep doing the same thing they’ve been doing since 1998: accepting donated uniforms, restoring them and displaying them to the public when they get the chance.

Despite the lack of a permanent facility, the group does mount temporary displays wherever and whenever it can. That includes annual uniform shows at the Capitol, the Oregon State Fair and the Marion County Fair. The biggest exhibit they’ve ever done was a display of 125 uniforms that was on view in the Capitol for a full month in 2004.

But they also do smaller shows every chance they get. They travel up and down the Willamette Valley, sometimes with as few as a half-dozen uniforms, to set up displays at schools, churches, retirement homes - wherever they’re invited.

If you ask them why they keep on doing it, they have trouble articulating their reasons.

“That’s like trying to explain religion and love,” Vanderhoof says.

“(But) I think it’s important that we keep the history alive and that we honor the people who did military service. . I just think it’s important.”

“That’s a big thing,” Hardy adds. “We forget about those people.”

For Hardy, as for many military veterans, it’s important that their service receives some recognition from the public, and that their sacrifices are not forgotten.

“My best friend died in Vietnam,” Hardy says. “I go visit his grave two or three times a year. After I die, maybe nobody will.”

But they might come to a museum to look at some old uniforms, and think about the veterans who wore them.

___

Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com

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