Home of the Brave Hawaii museum of World War II artifacts is in jeopardy of closing

By DIANE S. W. LEE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: December 18, 2019

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Visitors to Home of the Brave Hawaii can hop aboard a 1945 Ford Jeep featured in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor,” grab a vintage bottle of Coca-Cola and flip through a scrapbook of the USS Saratoga featuring personal letters from a World War II sailor.

Every artifact, relic and bit of memorabilia featured in the estimated 2,700-square-foot museum in Kakaako — including vintage pins, military patches, photographs, flags, hats and uniforms — has a story behind it.

“We have the largest World War II private collection in the Pacific,” said Glen Tomlinson, president of the museum, which is supported by the nonprofit Remember Honor Salute Foundation. “Everything in here has been donated by 100,000 World War II veterans. What you see is not ‘stuff.’ (They are) treasured memories not only from the veterans but their families as well.”

After 28 years in Kakaako, Home of the Brave Hawaii is seeking a new home, financial support from the community or, perhaps, a strategic partner or investor — otherwise it or the affiliated Brewseum brewpub may have to close before the end of this month.

Tomlinson, 58, and his wife Janet, 61, staff the museum, which costs about $10,000 per month in rent and utilities, not including payroll and other expenses such as insurance. They are looking for a sustainable revenue source.

“This isn’t about me,” said Tomlinson, who also operates the Brewseum just around the corner. “This is about keeping these stories alive and to be able to share it with future generations.”

Tomlinson hopes to keep the collection together rather than putting the items up for auction or donating them to different museums. He wants to find another location with parking to make it easier for school groups, tourists and local residents to visit. Street parking is limited at 909 Waimanu St.

Just days before the 78th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, Tomlinson announced the museum’s closure on its website and social media accounts. He hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll close the museum and keep the Brewseum open or vice versa. The last day is scheduled on Dec. 28.

“That’s D-Day for us when we have to shut it down, because we don’t have the money to keep it going,” Tomlinson said.

This isn’t the first time the museum has been in danger of closing due to financial woes. On Oct. 22, 2017, Tomlinson organized a Gofundme.com campaign, but fell short of its $100,000 fundraising goal — raising only about $10,000 from individual donations. Many of his friends and family members contributed.

Last year, the museum received a $184,000 grant from the state and other funding sources.

“Even with that support, we still face the main challenges of location and no parking,” Tomlinson wrote in the letter.

The state funding ended Oct. 31, he said.

Since then, Tomlinson has been exploring potential options of relocating the museum’s collection to Kualoa Ranch, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam or even to the mainland. However, Tomlinson stressed that he wants the collection to stay in Hawaii.

“We just can’t figure out how to generate revenue now that the state grant is gone, because they were paying to keep the lights on for the past year,” Tomlinson said.

Since opening the museum in 1991, Tomlinson estimates he has amassed over 100,000 artifacts and items of memorabilia donated by service veterans and their ohana.

A collage of hundreds of Polaroid pictures of World War II veterans is tacked up on the museum’s “Wall of Fame,” which snakes up the wall leading upstairs to a 1940s-themed speakeasy Wiki Waki Woo Tropical Bar & Lounge. There, visitors can grab a Jet Pilot or Tiki Mai Tai while exploring the hundreds of World War II items treasured by veterans and their family members.

Tomlinson opened the speakeasy as a fun way for visitors to relax and share wartime stories over a cold one while generating revenue to help pay for overhead costs. But that wasn’t enough to cover the bills.

“You can’t sell enough beer and cocktails to pay rent, electricity and insurance,” he said.

Tomlinson attempted to appeal to a younger demographic by allowing visitors to interact with the museum: hop onto a vintage Army Harley-Davidson and pose for Instagrammable photos in life-sized head cardboard cutouts of a sailor and a hula girl.

For 25 years, Tomlinson ran an eight-hour tour program taking veterans and their family members to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-­Hickam, Schofield Barracks, Fort Shafter, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, downtown Honolulu and the final stop — Home of the Brave Hawaii.

Tomlinson said he ended the program in December 2016 due to tough competition from larger tour groups, heightened security on military installations and the program’s shrinking audience, which dwindled with each passing year as World War II veterans died. The youngest are now in their 90s.

Just last week, Tomlinson hired a videographer to film promotional videos to post on the museum’s social media accounts as a plea to help save the museum.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser visited on a recent Monday when Tomlinson invited USS Arizona survivor Lou Conter, 98, who stopped in with a documentary filmmaker.

Conter traveled from Sacramento, Calif., with nearly 50 friends and family to attend events commemorating the 78th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The memories of Pearl Harbor are seared into Conter’s memory as he recalled the surprise aerial attack by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941. Conter was at the stern aboard the USS Arizona when the Japanese dropped bombs that sunk the battleship. A total of 1,177 men were killed on the Arizona. Conter is just one of three crew members still alive today.

The museum has numerous tributes to Pearl Harbor: a reprint of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newsflash announcing the attack, an American flag that flew aboard the USS Rigel moored at Pearl Harbor and many black-and-white photographs of those who served on that fateful day.

Just around the corner is a display case filled with relics from the Holocaust such as a Nazi flag and a black-and-white photo of Adolf Hitler. On top of the display case sits a Stahlhelm, or steel helmet, used by the military forces of Nazi Germany, donated by Tomlinson’s friend whose father was an attorney at the Nuremberg Trials.

Conter said high school classes should tour the museum to learn more about history — both the good and the bad.

“They don’t learn history like they should today,” Conter said.

California resident Mary Wagner Kreigh, 82, donated her family’s treasures and a collection of stories she gathered about the men aboard the USS Utah.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Wagner’s father, Chief Yeoman Albert T.D. Wagner, was waiting for a chaplain to come aboard the Utah to perform a traditional Navy burial at sea for his infant daughter Nancy Lynne. The surprise Pearl Harbor attack changed their plans. The urn containing the ashes went down with the men who died aboard the ship.

Every December, Wagner Kreigh said she visits Pearl Harbor, Ford Island and USS Utah with her daughter Nina Kreigh to pay respects to her identical twin baby sister.

“My wish is that since we started life together, we should be able to go into eternity together in some way or another,” said Wagner Kreigh, who was sitting in front of her Utah collection while dressed in red, white and blue. “I want my ashes to be put aboard the ship with my twin sister.”

Wagner Kreigh wrote the story about her twin sister along with “The Littlest Shipmate” poem she penned and printed them on a handful of pamphlets and notecards for museum visitors to take home.

“I can’t say enough for these men and women who gave their all,” she said. “… I’ve gone to many, many museums and this is the only one I’ve ever seen that is totally authentic.”

Over the years, hundreds of World War II veterans have marched through the museum.

“Sadly, I would say almost every one of those guys have passed away, so every time I look at the wall,” Tomlinson said, his voice cracking as he gazed at the portraits of smiling veterans posted on the wall. “That’s the obligation that we have is to keep their stories alive, once again, for future generations.”

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