Revamped New Mexico Military Museum to be unveiled
By ROBERT NOTT | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: November 6, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — Gordon C. Hill, a pilot who went missing in action in Laos in 1970, left behind a pair of boots that are on display.
Charles Oler, a Bataan Death March survivor who later died in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, left behind letters he sent to his sister in New Mexico.
Others left uniforms, canteens, first-aid kits, weapons, photos and other mementos of New Mexicans who fought in battles dating to the Civil War.
These items and many more are on display at the New Mexico Military Museum, which is hosting a grand reopening at 4 p.m. Wednesday. The event is free.
The museum, which closed earlier this year for renovations, honors veterans’ stories by personalizing them and creating exhibits built around a theme — women nurses in World War II or New Mexico’s role in the Civil War, for example.
The museum will also showcase a miniature version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the start of what will be a larger exhibit on the Civil War.
Also new: The walls are adorned with a series of brightly colored paintings created by the late Don Schloat, a World War II prisoner of war who survived the 1944 Palawan Massacre, in which Japanese captors killed at least 150 American prisoners by setting them on fire. His works pay tribute to his comrades killed in that massacre.
The museum has hired a new executive director, Samantha Tubbs, who said one of her first jobs will be to catalog and archive the thousands of items collected over the years, mostly from donors and veterans. Then she’ll build a database and start planning exhibits. She also wants to bring in traveling military-related exhibits.
“We want to make it more of a visitor experience museum rather than an exhibition of facts and history,” said curator Gary Miller, a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran. “We are going to bring out the personal stories behind the artifacts.”
The museum opened in the 1970s and has been in its location at the old New Mexico National Guard armory for at least 25 years. It was once called the Bataan Memorial Museum and later the New Mexico National Guard Museum.
The armory, which opened in 1938, was the processing facility for New Mexican soldiers who eventually fought in the Battle of Bataan in defense of the Philippines following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Of the estimated 1,800 New Mexicans who fought alongside Filipino defenders in that campaign, only half came home. The rest died either in battle, on the infamous 65-mile march or in Japanese prison camps. The museum showcases items related to that campaign.
It also has a 1916 Harley-Davidson military motorcycle, a World War II-era jeep and a machine gun from a B-52 on display.
Thanks to the renovation, which cost about $1.4 million, the museum has a refurbished the lobby and bathrooms, added new stucco, lighting, windows and doors, and updated the sound system in the auditorium.
Ralph Nava, president of the museum’s foundation, which raises money for the site, said the museum is always looking for volunteers and donors.
“This museum honors all veterans,” he said.
Miller said museum leaders have been working for years to expand the museum’s offerings and draw attention to its mission.
Now, he said, “It might be the right time” for it to take off.