Home sought for collection of military artifacts
By John Burgeson | Connecticut Post, Bridgeport, Conn. | Published: March 2, 2014
MILFORD — Tucked away in a small upstairs room of the city-owned Fowler Building are bits and pieces of heroic military campaigns from long ago.
There's a sword from a captured general who served under Japanese Emperor Hirohito during World War II, a 19th century officer's naval uniform, aviator goggles from World War II, a gas mask from the trenches of World War I. One of the hats might even be from the Napoleonic Wars.
Many more items, most donated by Milford veterans and their wives and children, sit in boxes stacked up against a wall. These materials were supposed to be displayed in a military museum, but for reasons that aren't entirely clear, the museum never took flight, even though it was officially approved by the city in 1984.
There's even a sign on the rear of the Fowler Memorial Building (the older brick structure immediately to the west of the Public Library) that says there's the "Johnson Military Museum" inside.
It's named after Robert DeForest Johnson, the Army Air Corps sergeant who spent time in Germany's notorious Stalag 17B after his bomber was shot down over Holland. Conditions there were brutal, with 4,000 men crammed into barracks made for 250. At its peak, 17B held nearly 30,000 POWs from an assortment of Allied nations.
Johnson, who also served in Korea, went on to become Milford's veterans' service officer. He died in 1984.
The collection is under the auspices of the city's Veterans, Parade and Ceremony Commission (formerly known as the Fowler Memorial Commission), whose chairman, Thomas C. Flowers, said that his commission will take up the matter with new vigor when it meets in March.
"The mayor has asked us to give him alternative locations where this collection can be located," Flowers said, adding that the collection also needs to be looked at by a curator knowledgeable in the field of military artifacts.
"The collection needs to be taken out of the Fowler Building, because the Fowler Building isn't open to the public," he said. "And we did succeed in getting it under lock-and-key. For years, that room was just left open."
Flowers and others familiar with the collection and its decades-long search for a proper home said there have been efforts before to get the collection situated in a place where people can see it.
"Unfortunately, the suggestions that we'll give to the mayor are quite likely ones that have been made before," Flowers said.
These include displaying some or all of the items in the Parsons Government Building on West River Street and/or the Public Library. Other ideas include rotating the collection through city schools or even donating it to the nearby West Haven Veterans Museum and Learning Center.
"At least there it would be secure and under the care of people who know what they're doing," said veteran Eric Muth, who donated "a few old uniforms" to the effort. Muth has been gently prodding the city to make a move on the collection.
Returning the items to the families who donated them is another option, although this is quite likely unworkable; many of those people have since died or moved away, those familiar with the collection say.
"I can't blame Mayor (Benjamin) Blake for this," Muth said. "It's a situation that he's inherited."
"We'll definitely have to make some decisions about this collection," Blake agreed, who opened up the room in the Fowler Building so a Post reporter and a photographer could take a look at it. "Some of these artifacts are truly amazing."
To be sure, not all of the items are priceless relics. Some look like they could have come from any well-stocked Army-Navy shop, like the famous Marine Specialties store in Provincetown, Mass.
But there are heartfelt letters written by soldiers on far-flung fields of conflict; one was from a Milford man fighting Confederate forces in Georgia.
"There's a Civil War uniform. It looks like buckshot hit it. What a shame," Muth said.