Museum preserves the service and stories of state’s veterans

Alabama Living Magazine

By Jim Plott

Sandy Thompson, director of the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens, stands in front of the museum’s Pearl Harbor exhibit. The exhibit includes an actual piece of the battleship USS Arizona which was sunk in the Japanese attack. Photo by Jim Plott

Two years ago, after a more than 80-year absence, Edgar David Gross finally came back home to Alabama.

The Navy seaman was among the 2,400 casualties at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese war planes attacked the naval base and surrounding military installations.  

In 2018, after DNA testing, the seaman’s remains were reinterred to a cemetery in a rural Limestone County community where he grew up.

Displays and artifacts are preserved at the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens. Photo by Hal Yeager/Governor’s office

His story, and the stories of multiple sailors, soldiers and Marines who died or survived combat in numerous wars, are unfolded at the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens, near Huntsville.

Gross, age 40 at his death, served 16 years in the U.S. Navy when hostilities in the world resulted in him being recalled into service in 1940. He was aboard the USS Oklahoma when it and seven other battleships – along with multiple other ships and nearly 170 aircraft – were destroyed in the attack that thrust the U.S. into World War II.

Navy seaman Edgar David Gross, a native of Limestone County, was stationed on the USS Oklahoma and was among the casualties of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Included is a flag that draped his casket when his remains were returned to Alabama two years ago. Photo by Jim Plott

“This museum is a tribute to the people that bought us freedom and some of them, like Edgar David Gross, paid for it with their lives,” says Museum Director Sandy Thompson, a retired U.S. Air Force sergeant. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be living and enjoying the liberties that we have today in this country.”

While the museum focuses mainly on people from Limestone County, Thompson said their stories mirror those of veterans from every part of the United States.

With more than 5,000 artifacts and documents on display, the museum covers every major war and conflict that the United States has been involved in from the American Revolution to the present.

Among the artifacts is a metal piece from the forward deck of the battleship USS Arizona, which was bombed and destroyed at Pearl Harbor. Thompson said the piece – “one of our prized possessions” – was removed from the ship to make room for the memorial. The museum requested and was given the item.

The museum also displays many authentic uniforms of each war, including those worn by enemy combatants.

“We had someone from Germany who toured the museum. When he returned home, he sent us an actual German uniform from World War II,” Thompson says. “You just never know who is going to walk through the doors and what they might bring.”

In pre-pandemic times, the museum attracted about 12,000 visitors a year, Thompson says. 

The Athens museum has displays like this one from World War II for every major war and conflict the U.S. has been involved in from the American Revolution to the present. Photo by Jim Plott

A tribute to those who served

Gov. Kay Ivey toured the Athens museum in July 2021 when she attended the grand opening in the new building. Photo by Hal Yeager/Governor’s office

The non-profit and mostly privately funded museum had its beginning in 1995 when Veterans Service Officer Kenneth David decided to collect World War II military artifacts to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of that war.

“Once it was over, a lot of the donors decided that the items they brought were too valuable to be returned to a closet or attic and be forgotten or damaged so they left them where they thought they would be protected,” Thompson says. “Pretty soon people started bringing items from other wars and combats, and everything just sort of morphed into this wonderful museum.”

Officially open in November 2002, the museum set up shop in the former L&N railroad freight depot. Eight years later the Limestone County Commission donated a larger adjacent building to help the museum manage its mushrooming collection.

The 20,000-square-foot building, half of which is dedicated to museum displays, was officially opened July 1 with Gov. Kay Ivey among the more than 750 people who attended the event.

Ivey called the museum a tribute to Alabamians who served in the armed forces and a beacon to remind current and future generations of the hardships and sacrifices men and women in uniform endured in defense of freedom.

Displays and artifacts are preserved at the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens. Photos by Hal Yeager/Governor’s office

The new addition includes a larger library and veteran research center, a virtual reality room, gift shop and several new exhibits including one honoring the sacrifices made by civilians on the “home front” during World War II.

In addition to the exhibits, the museum hosts a monthly “coffee call,” a free socializing and light breakfast event for veterans and their families. The event, which has been placed on hiatus during the pandemic, is sponsored by area businesses.

Thompson said the museum plans to unveil additional exhibits and make additional improvements inside the building. Meanwhile, the museum is hoping to acquire additional property for a memorial park.

“The role of this museum as we see it is not only to entertain, but to educate,” Thompson says. “We want to convey the incredible sacrifices and the intensity of war.”

Museum volunteer Yvonne Dempsey adjusts the hat of a mockup of Navy WAVE Nell Smith Lutz (also in the photo), who served during World War II. Photo by Jim Plott

The museum at 100 W. Pryor Street in downtown Athens is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Donations are appreciated. Visit AlabamaVeteransMuseum.com


Other selected veteran and military museums in Alabama

U.S. Army Aviation Museum (Fort Rucker) 

More than 160 aircraft from all eras are on display at the United States Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Aviation Museum

Building 6000 Novosel Street 

ArmyAviationMuseum.org

334-598-2508

A military museum housing more than 160 military aircraft and one of the largest collections of military helicopters. Indoor and outdoor exhibits. Donations appreciated and gift shop proceeds fund the museum. 

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday

9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday


U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum (Huntsville) 

2060A Airport Road

Email info@memorial.museum.org

256-883-3737 

Indoor and outdoor displays of more than 30 military vehicles along with exhibits. Donation requested. 

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday


Talladega Hall of Heroes (City of Talladega) 

112 Court Square East

TalladegaHeroes.org

256-268-7217

Museum pays tribute to veterans and first responders. Donations accepted. 

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday-Friday

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. second Saturdays


Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

(Tuskegee) 

1616 Chappie James Ave.

NPS.gov/tuai.index.htm

334-724-0922

Tour the hangar and training grounds of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African American pilots who were trained and participated in combat missions during World War II. Free. 

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday


USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park

(Mobile) 

2703 Battleship Parkway

USSAlabama.com 

251-432-0261

Tour the USS Alabama battleship and submarine USS Drum and view military planes and equipment. Admission charged with discounts for some. 

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Sunday

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