SALEM, Ore. (AP) - In one corner of the armory is a heavy piece of artillery, mounted on wheels and showing some battle damage. It stands out not necessarily because it’s big, but because it’s green.
Most of the artifacts at the Oregon Military Museum are camouflaged in white muslin. But this one, a German Lange 21cm Mörser that could fire a 250-pound shell nearly 7 miles, is either too unwieldy or indestructible, most likely both.
The weapon was captured in France by the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, brought to the U.S. as a trophy of the war, and later awarded to Oregon by Congress. Today it is among more than 14,000 artifacts housed at the museum, including 1,300 uniforms, 750 small arms, 50 vehicles and five aircraft.
“Each one, to me, is an absolute treasure,” curator Tracy Thoennes says, “and I can tell you a story about it, or how it was used.”
The treasures and their stories, including those of Oregon’s war trophies, have been mothballed since 2009. That’s when base realignment at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas gave the museum an opportunity to expand. Organizers have since been on a mission to transform from a modest museum with an average of just 4,000 visitors a year into a state-of-the-art museum that draws that many in a month.
Construction and remodeling is under way, but fundraisers are just halfway toward their $16 million goal and an estimated two years away from their grand reopening.
If anyone has motivation to expedite the timeline it’s Tommy Thayer. He is the son of James Thayer, a decorated World War II veteran and namesake of the museum.
“I hope that my dad can actually cut the ribbon and walk through the doors,” Tommy Thayer says. “He turns 94 next month, so time is important. I want him to see it become a reality.”
Tommy Thayer, lead guitarist for what he refers to as a little band called Kiss, has been center stage in the fundraising campaign for the Brigade General James B. Thayer Oregon Military Museum. He and his band mates have performed at several charity galas, including an intimate gathering last summer at a private residence in Lake Oswego that raised $1.2 million.
For the record, the museum’s artifacts are not really mothballed, but preserved and protected by archival packing materials whenever possible. It took Thoennes and 14 volunteers six months to pack up and move the collection from its previous location into the Clackamas Armory, and it won’t be unpacked and displayed for the public until the project is complete.
Thoennes is in her 13th year as curator of the official state repository for weapons, documents and artifacts in relation to the military history of Oregon. She is the only paid staff member. The museum opened in 1975 and today has what she and Thayer refer to as “the greatest armament collection west of the Mississippi.”
Much of the collection is being stored in the former drill room of the armory, which was built in 1954 and needed a new roof and a new HVAC system. It now has temperature and relative humidity control to create the most favorable environment for priceless, and sometimes precarious, artifacts.
The collection includes 1,000 examples of ordnance, such as bombs, shells and grenades. Thoennes says it took three members of an explosive ordnance detachment three months to go through the collection, X-raying 250 objects and opening the others. The technicians removed two examples at that time and have since removed others.
The oldest artifact at the museum is a cannon used by the 2nd Oregon Militia in Manila during the Spanish American War. Among the newest are a Remote Ordnance Neutralization System (RONS) robot and an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) suit used by the Oregon Air National Guard from 2002 to 2013.
Some items have been donated by military units and branches, others by private individuals and families. Thoennes says the museum continues to have a moratorium on new donations, although there are limited exceptions. The personal papers of Dr. Charles Zerzan, for example, were accepted in 2015. Zerzan entered the Oregon National Guard in 1937, at age 16, and remained in service until 1968. He was a physician for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A behind-the-scenes tour is fascinating, even with most of the items shrouded in mystery. We would never have recognized the stack of McClellan saddles used by members of the Oregon cavalry if Thoennes didn’t point them out, or the marble-topped side board that once belonged to President Ulysses S. Grant.
“This is the heart and soul,” says Amy Maxwell of the Oregon Military Museum Project. “People will come here to see the real thing.”
The Oregon Military Museum Project is a nonprofit organization that represents the fundraising interests of the museum. It was formed by Tommy Thayer, his brother Jim Thayer Jr., and Maxwell. Their goal is to leverage community leaders, local companies and corporations both state and region wide to raise the funds to complete the museum in the next 24 months.
A combination of private donations and federal and state funds are being used, with more than $8 million raised so far. A one-time general fund appropriation of $250,000 was given by the state to the Oregon Military Department for creation of exhibits and other capital expenditures directly related to the establishment and maintenance of the museum.
Maxwell says she learns something new every time she brings a group of VIPs and potential donors to the site. The highlight for many is seeing the small arms collection, which is kept in a vault.
Row after row of mostly rifles and light machine guns - from 35 countries friend and foe - are lined up on shelves inside. Thoennes points out a Japanese trophy rifle that Leonard Dewitt came home with after World War II. Dewitt lives in McMinnville and turns 95 on Feb. 24.
Other treasures occupy space in the vault, too. There is a coral encrusted M1 helmet, with bullet entry and exit holes, which was found in the South Pacific near Tinian and Saipan. A stack of large boxes contain an insignia collection worth a quarter of a million dollars, with uniform patches that date back to the Spanish American War and signify branch, rank and unit.
While it is regrettable these treasures are hidden from the public, at least for the time being, it is commendable that organizers are creating a venue commensurate with the collection. When the museum does open, the plan is for admission to be free.
The museum sits on a four-acre site at Camp Withycombe that includes a relocated field artillery horse barn and a quartermaster storehouse, both circa 1911.
The barn once was home to the horses of the Battery A Field Artillery, and their stenciled names are still visible above the stalls, such as Sam, Edward, Thomas, Dan, Nellie, Blaze and Rock. Instead of horses the barn now houses a dozen pieces of vintage field artillery.
“When this is open,” Thoennes says, “this is by far the favorite place to visit.”
Information from: Statesman Journal, https://www.statesmanjournal.com
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