After 36 years, National Infantry Museum director Frank Hanner is set for retirement
By CHUCK WILLIAMS | Columbus Ledger-Enquirer | Published: December 29, 2017
COLUMBUS, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — When you walk through the National Infantry Museum with Director Frank Hanner, you quickly get the sense there is nothing about the extensive collection of military history he doesn’t know.
He speaks in machine gun-like rapid bursts, and you just listen.
Hanner sees a bust of Gen. John J. Pershing and immediately begins to spout the story of the legendary World War I general known simply as “Black Jack.” No notes, no internet, just fact piled on fact about “Black Jack” and his tactics on the western front in that conflict.
Walk past a display case in the World War II gallery and ask Hanner about the upside-down head of German dictator Adolph Hitler, and you quickly learn that an American soldier took it during the war and brought it home.
“When the man died, his son contacted us and asked if we were interested,” Hanner said. “The man’s father had been using it as a trash can for decades.”
Hanner and the U.S. Army took possession of the unique waste basket in which Hitler’s neck was the opening to deposit trash..
“The only catch was we could never display it right side up,” Hanner said.
Another old Army relic in the museum is Hanner, himself. After 36 years working with the National Infantry Museum, the past 22 as the director, Hanner is retiring on Dec. 31. It is a bittersweet moment for the 68-year-old historian who has protected the Army’s Fort Benning collection for decades. Prior to that he worked at other Army museums, including Fort Stewart, where he picked up his master’s degree from Armstrong State University.
Recently, Hanner gave his final tour as the museum’s director. For more than four hours he moved through the expansive halls of the National Infantry Museum talking about history, hoping those who were listening to him would take heed.
“If history is used properly, it can remind us of the past,” Hanner said. “It can also give you lessons that you can use as a military person. You want to have these things as links to the past. You want the brand-new soldiers, the ones who are coming in now, to see the history and know that they are the future.”
The National Infantry Museum is owned by the National Infantry Museum Foundation, a non-profit organization established to raise money for the museum and its operation. The collection of artifacts on display in the museum are owned by the U.S. Army, and that is where Hanner and three other civil service employees come into the picture.
“Frank has been instrumental in the success of the National Infantry Museum and has been an icon within the Army’s Center of Military History,” said Mike Burns, special assistant to the commanding general, Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning.
Though the National Infantry Museum is open the public, one of the primary purposes is to educate soldiers about the history of the nation’s conflicts and the history of the infantry and its role in those wars.
Hanner has given thousands of soldiers a walk through the museum’s three locations since landing at Fort Benning in November 1981 as the curator.
“What I see in those soldiers is a young person trying to get ahead, and one way to do that is the Army,” Hanner said. “The Army certainly helped me get ahead.”
Hanner enlisted in 1971 after graduating from Appalachian State with a degree in history. Hanner, a soldier assigned to Korea, stumbled into his career while still in the Army. He visited an Army museum that was 17 1/2 miles from the Demilitarized Zone and later was assigned to that museum when the director saw Hanner’s love of history.
One of the pieces in that collection was the Liscum Bowl, a sterling silver bowl made in 1902 from bullion rescued by the 9th Infantry Regiment during the Boxer Rebellion.
“I used to polish and clean up that bowl,” Hanner said.
It has been a rewarding career during which he has seen the Army’s collection at Fort Benning move from the old main post hospital to a state-of-the-art museum just off the Benning Road gate.
“History is powerful,” Hanner said.
And he finds historical significance in almost anything. When you talk about the century-old history of Fort Benning, Hanner, a Winston-Salem, N.C., native, talks about all the Army bases scattered across the American South.
“You know,” he started, “the very thing that defeated the South in the Civil War is the very thing that helps the South today,” Hanner said. “It’s the U.S. Army.”
Ask Hanner what he is going to do now that he does not have to come to work every day, he just laughs.
“The first thing I am going to do is go home and sleep for about a year,” he said. “I am old, and I started to feel it today when I did that tour. Everything on me is starting to go snap, crackle, pop. I have started telling people that I am not killing time any more, time is killing me.”
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