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Pennies From Heaven

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May 26, 2010 by wcobserver

by Alison Grisham

Bill Seymour, a Vietnam veteran and volunteer at The Ozark Military Museum in Greenland, points to an Army helicopter as he recounts a story about his friend, pilot, Kenny Messenger.  In 1967, Messenger packed his military-issued duffel to head home.  It was his last day of a two-year tour in Vietnam and he had logged over 2000 combat hours.

Seymour conveys the details with uncanny recall. “Two thousand combat hours is unheard of,” he says shaking his head in admiration.  Friends since flying school in Amityville, NY, Seymour refers to Messenger as a “’slick pilot’… and one of the best you’d ever want to know.”  As he continues talking, it’s hard to believe that Seymour is remembering events that occurred over 40 years ago.

The Ozark Military Museum, where Seymour shares his story, opened in 1982 as The NWA WWII Museum.  Started by a handful of veterans, the first project took place in Springdale, with the restoration of a Beach-18 twin-engine aircraft named the Canadian Queen.  The retired gem, emblazoned with a pin-up girl on the nose, can still be found today at the Museum’s current location in Greenland. What won’t be found is the former WWII designation within the Museum’s name.  To more aptly reflect the range of military exhibits, the current moniker was adopted almost 20 years ago.

In keeping with its growth, the Museum also relocated to Greenland in 1990.  Several vehicles and countless pieces of history had to be transported nearly 12 miles between the two airports.  Members acquired temporary permits to fly a few of the planes.  The rest were transported on open, flat bed trucks.  Passersby watched as dismantled wings and fuselages were delivered in pieces to their new home by convoy.

In the smallest display room of The Ozark Military Museum, protected by a glass case, is a wrinkled napkin, a memento from New Year’s Eve 1944.  Without explanation, the name “Midge” is penned across the upper left hand corner.  The remnant sits amongst tattered letters and envelopes that chronicle the lives of soldiers and their correspondence to loved ones during WWII. 

In an adjoining room, rifles armed with bayonets are a poignant reminder that combat often occurs in closer proximity than we’d like to think.  Veteran Leonard McCandless, President of the Museum’s board of directors, responds matter-of-factly when discussing these necessities of war.  “Sure sometimes you’d have to use a bayonet.  If you ran out of ammunition, you might have to use the back of your rifle, or a knife or whatever you could.” His statement is without judgment or endorsement. It is simply fact.

The beauty of visiting The Ozark Military Museum lies, not only in the impressive array of military history, but also in the first-hand narratives of the people who run it. 

McCandless, for instance, graduated first among 750 members of his 1953 paratrooper class.  At 72, and perpetually jumping from airplanes, McCandless holds one of the longest continuous jump records in the United States.  With 56 years of indefatigability, and nearly 2,200 documented jumps, he easily surpassed even the most auspicious expectations for his career.  Regarding the fear of his shoot not opening, McCandless is nonchalant.  “Well I never had both of ‘em fail…,” he explains with staggering composure.  “although my main shoot did fail on about 5 different occasions.” Of course he doesn’t attribute his success to ability.  “I was just lucky,” he speculates without a trace of ego.

The current membership of The Ozark Military Museum hovers around 70 people, who each pay $50 in dues per year.  However, Tuesdays and Thursdays see the bulk of the work and restoration completed by the same group of volunteers.  In total, about a dozen men, including Seymour and McCandless as well as Darrell Cox, Bob Kellett, Marc Whittlesey, Rex Stewart and Jack Macy all work side by side to accomplish what seems impossible to an outside observer.

Additionally, four WWII veterans still work tirelessly as part of the core group.  With names that solidly confirm their place in “the greatest generation,” Doc Pansegrua, Don Whittlesey, Dick Wood and Ted Mack continue to be a living and interactive part of the history found within the Museum.

When 86 year-old Mack recalls his tour of duty, he doesn’t speak of foxholes, the enemy, or invasions. “I don’t dwell on that,” he said.  Instead, his most memorable experience was a chance reunion with his brother at the height of the war.  After two years of no contact, it must have been fate that led Ted Mack to see his brother Joe’s unit and learn of their next assignment to the Philippines.  Within a couple of weeks Ted’s unit was unexpectedly close to his brother’s location and Ted requested leave.  Although leave was virtually unheard of in a time of war, permission was granted.  The pair, representing thousands of soldiers who had been long separated from family, spent two days together and created a bit of joy in the midst of unimaginable despair. 

As Mack finishes talking, Bill Seymour comments on the considerable contribution Mack has made to the Museum. “Ted can fix any damn thing around.  He can make somethin’ out of nothin’.” Upon hearing that, Mack, too humble to acknowledge the praise, leaves the lunchroom’s formica table and goes back to doing what he does best, fixing things.

In addition to the exhibits, the walls of the Museum are covered by hundreds of commemorative plaques representing men and women from all branches of the military.  For a nominal fee of $25, any member of the armed services, past or present, is eligible for a spot on the wall.  Yearly membership, however, does not require military service.  According to curator, Mike Eckels, “without membership dues and donations from a few generous benefactors, the museum could not continue to operate.”  In 10 years as acting curator, Eckels has “seen it grow” and is “proud of what the museum offers.” 

Specifically, visitors are sure to be moved by the display of a single penny, mounted simply in front of a vintage jeep. The penny, originally found under the truck’s glove compartment, is an example of the thousands of pennies that were secretly hidden in new military vehicles before they were sent off to the front lines.  The copper coins were thought to bring good luck.

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