• 55°

Museum battles to preserve history

Flags representing different branches of service drape the center of the main room at Brookhaven’s Military Memorial Museum. Along the walls, uniforms hang and yellowed newspaper clippings wait patiently to be read. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, somewhere among the patinaed medals and vintage rifles, sits museum volunteer Roffie Burt. 

A Vietnam veteran who wore both Air Force and Army uniforms during his military career, Burt has put in countless hours giving tours of the historic attraction. Recently I watched as he offered a school group some important lessons.

“That’s a B-25,” he explained, pointing to a radio-controlled model plane hanging from the ceiling. “The Doolittle Raiders bombed Tokyo with them.”   

The idea of creating a showcase for war relics hidden away in local attics, however, wasn’t Burt’s. He was in the process of retiring from Mississippi State University in 2003 when the museum was being established. In fact, Burt, who spent 34 years as a faculty member in the civil engineering department at MSU, had no intention of becoming involved in the museum.

“I did not volunteer,” he makes clear. “I was drafted.”

That particular draft was instituted by Burt’s cousin, Paul Jackson, who died in 2012. “I have stayed on because the museum meant so much to him and the other World War II veterans,” Burt explains. “Being from the Vietnam era where we were dishonored by the American public, I would not be involved but for World War II veterans like Paul, Cecil Rhodes, Millard Smith, and others like them.”

So while some retirees spend their days on the golf course or behind the wheel of an RV seeing the sights, Burt uses his to spark an interest in war lore. He and other volunteers have kept the doors open at the museum for history lovers for more than 13 years now, enabling visitors to see purple hearts and silver stars, a Japanese machine gun, ration books and volcanic ash.

Volcanic ash?

Yes. A bag of it was donated to the museum by the late Jack Lucas after he made a return trip to Iwo Jima. Lucas was barely 17 when he was awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor for his valiant actions during World War II. Witnesses say the Marine from Purvis willingly covered two live grenades with his own body, sparing his comrades from injury. 

Burt and the museum’s other volunteers think it’s important to know about Jack Lucas and other military heroes. They see the exhibits, displays, and library as a way of educating today’s young people. Well, educating all of us, actually.

But like others in the group on the day I toured, I felt somewhat overwhelmed. So much to learn. So much to examine. So much to take in. And it wasn’t even my first visit.    

So I asked Burt for a list of his top 10 “don’t-miss-these” items at the museum. Maybe making your way through his picks would be a good place to begin. Here’s what he chose:

1. World War I gun cart.

2. Miniature military cemetery.

3. Wood-tip ammo clip used by Japan during WWII after their supply of lead was cut off.

4. Aircraft Carrier Princeton model.

5. World War II special edition of The Daily Leader.

6. Photograph of the Court House Memorial.

7. Glass case of MIA Danny Entrican memorabilia.

8. A captured Japanese flag.

9. Military painting depicting an open Bible and soldier saluting in the foreground.

10. Article about Brookhaven’s German POW camp

To see the exhibits in person, visit the Military Memorial Museum in Brookhaven’s historic depot at 125 S. Whitworth Avenue. It’s open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., or by appointment.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.