Indiana Military Museum staff keep ever-expanding museum in operation
By Bernie Schmitt
On a hot summer day in the middle of the week, Vietnam veteran Howard Lanham (U.S. Air Force) took time to talk about a Russian tank and other historical armaments while giving a tour at the Indiana
The visitors, Mark Bush, his son Ben, and grandsons Ethan and David, are from Newburgh. They are among the thousands who visit the IMM each year, learning from volunteers like Lanham, who are responsible for keeping the museum alive.
“We could not do it without our volunteers,” said Jim Osborne, the museum’s founder and curator.
There are about 70 or so people, most of whom — but not all — are retirees, who donate their time to work at the museum. A lot of the volunteers are veterans of the U.S. military. Some of them spend considerable time there, others volunteer when they can.
“Well, they can’t fire us,” quipped Joe Smith, who has the distinction of being the longest serving volunteer — 30-plus years — with the IMM. “If we get mad at something we’re working on, we just go home.”
He and Mike Klein have been working on reconstructing a Humvee this summer, trying to figure out how to make things work without workable parts or instructions. The volunteers bring their personal experience and knowledge to the jobs they do, but for the most part they try to figure it out as they go.
“None of us are mechanics,” said Lanham. “We look at something and decide how to take it apart, and hopefully put it back together.”
Air Force veteran Frank Roales is the museum’s aviation manager. Several years ago, Roales and his son were looking at one of the planes on display at the museum’s former location when he noticed that the rudder of the plane wasn’t painted correctly.
“I made the mistake of telling Jim it was wrong, and that’s how I got involved,” he said.
The huge white missile on display near the entrance to the museum on South Sixth Street was a project Roales worked on. Volunteers did a “complete rebuild,” he said, and sent the Air Force its serial number to get its history.
“Turns out this was one of the training missiles I took care of when I was stationed at Wildwood, Florida,” Roales said.
Accuracy very important
The volunteers are meticulous in trying to accurately represent U.S. military history. Roales works at getting the proper insignia painted on aircraft, and others work to rebuild and display military artifacts as close as possible to the original.
He admits that not everything may be perfect, but volunteers do their best. The museum has a Huey assault helicopter that saw 2,200 hours in Vietnam. He is working to get the correct markings for that aircraft at the point when it was flying there.
“I try to get them to be correct for the type of aircraft and for the time period,” he said.
There is no shortage of projects for which volunteers can devote their time and energy. There’s a Higgins boat that has to be restored, work on conning tower of the USS Indianapolis submarine is ongoing, there is a Russian tank to work on, and an number of other projects and displays to be completed. A World War I tank also is being refurbished.
The men and women who keep the museum operating and expanding donate their time because they enjoy doing it. They also believe that history is important.
Roales said in teaching history to children, the real artifacts make much more of an impact than just seeing photographs in a book.
“When they can see this for real, you realize how big a difference it can make,” he said.
The purpose isn’t to promote war, said Joe Smith. It’s to preserve history.
“We do this because we love it,” he said.
The camaraderie among the people who work at the IMM is evident. There is plenty of good-natured joking that goes on, too.
“We really do enjoy what we do,” Roales said. “I’ve got to keep busy. We’re not here for the glory.”
“Not me,” quipped Jon Andrews, another dedicated volunteer. “I’m here for the glory!”
“Well, good luck with that,” Roales laughed.
The Indiana Military Museum is rapidly expanding. Having moved from its Bruceville Road location in 2012, the museum now has 14 acres at its South Sixth Street location. Already a new building to house the museum’s restoration equipment is planned, so that the current large building can be used as display space.
The number of visitors continues to grow, according to volunteer Linda Shanklin, who coordinates events and tours for the museum. The museum gets plenty of Hoosiers, most from around a 50- to 75-mile radius. But it also gets visitors from all over the world.
“We’ve had visitors from 45 different countries and from all 50 states,” Shanklin said. “We’ve had 33 tour groups here so far this year. Twenty-one of those were school groups.”
Shanklin and her husband, Chip, both Vincennes natives, began volunteering upon retirement and moving back to Vincennes in 2014. Chip Shanklin and Osborne were school mates.
“So far it’s worked out well,” Linda Shanklin said. “We are so impressed with all the volunteers. The museum is phenomenal. It’s great for our community.”
Visitors to the IMM are typically military history buffs and veterans, though many families and children are part of the mix, too. Volunteers especially like talking to visitors, especially when people realize the scope of the museum and its artifacts.
“People have told us that this ranks up there with any other military museum in the country,” said J.D. Strange, another volunteer.
Dave Grundman has volunteered for eight years. He got involved after running into Osborne at Walgreen’s. Jerry Bruner comes all the way from Mt. Vernon, Indiana, to volunteer a day or two. Clay Decker has volunteered for years. Mike Young, another Vietnam veteran, also volunteers.
“When they can’t get anyone else, they call me,” Young said, with a laugh.
He likes experiencing the reaction from veterans, especially those from World War II. The museum has its annual “Salute to WWII Veterans” every Labor Day.
“I was showing a guy around and he saw a vehicle that he rode in during the war,” Young said. “He was like a kid in a candy store. When they (veterans) come here and see these things, it kind of opens them up.”
“We had a guy who broke down and cried going through here,” he said. “We’ve even had some who couldn’t complete the tour.”
Young said his father was a World War II veteran, but never said much about his service. Young never saw his father’s medals or military uniform until after his death.
“He never once showed us anything or talked about it,” he said.
Volunteer Steve Powell, a Vietnam War veteran, said the look on visitors’ faces when they first see the museum is priceless.
“I do what I can because I enjoy it,” he said. “This is an amazing place and the people who work here are amazing.
“This is raw history,” Powell said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”