Military museum in Largo conveys the human side of war

Visitors to the Armed Forces History Museum will get the sense that they are stepping into scenes from war.

Smoke drifts through a dim room, soldiers aim their guns at the enemy, and the rat-a-tat-tat sounds of gunfire fill the air in the museum’s World War I bunker.

John J. Piazza Sr., a retired businessman and former U.S. Marine, began collecting military artifacts and memorabilia when he was 17. About 90 percent of the items on display at the Armed Forces History Museum came from his personal collection. (Photo courtesy of the Armed Forces Military Museum)

John J. Piazza Sr., a retired businessman and former U.S. Marine, began collecting military artifacts and memorabilia when he was 17. About 90 percent of the items on display at the Armed Forces History Museum came from his personal collection.
(Photo courtesy of the Armed Forces Military Museum)

Exhibit cases in the room contain personal items that soldiers carried with them. They include foot powder, a razor, prayer books, a sewing kit and binoculars.

These items of daily living convey a sense of the human side of war.

The museum — in a squat warehouse a bit off the beaten track — contains a treasure trove of war artifacts and military memorabilia. Not only can visitors see what soldiers carried, but they also can see what military personnel wore, the weapons they used and the vehicles they rode in or drove.

More than 100,000 items are on display at the largest nongovernment funded museum of its kind in the state, said Cindy Bosselmann, the museum’s director of marketing and events. Even before visitors step inside the 35,000-square-foot building at 2050 34th Way N., in Largo, they’ll see military vehicles in the parking lot, including a helicopter and a Russian MiG jet.

About 90 percent of the items on exhibit were donated by retired businessman John J. Piazza Sr., who began amassing his vast collection more than a half-century ago. Piazza was 17 when he got his first military item — a World War I German mortar grenade given to him by his girlfriend.

Over the years, he continued collecting items, and he created a mobile museum that he drove around to the independent living centers, assisted living facilities and nursing homes that he owned. He used his traveling museum as a marketing tool, offering people a chance to see his collection and to entice potential customers to find out more about the facilities he owned.

After he retired, Piazza decided to create a nonprofit museum so that younger generations could learn about military conflicts, and to honor the men and women who have served in the armed forces. As patrons stroll through the military history center, they can hear the sounds of war and can listen to oral histories recorded by military personnel who witnessed such pivotal events as the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima’s Mt. Suribachi, and the D-Day landing of U.S. forces on Utah Beach.

It took Piazza and a team he hired about 18 months to create the exhibits that the now 75-year-old designed. The idea was to give visitors enough information to explain the exhibit, but not so much that it overwhelms them, said Piazza, who visited museums and looked through books before designing the exhibits.

“I wanted people to come in and have a wow effect,” Piazza said.

The museum includes displays featuring artifacts from World War 1, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In one room, visitors will get a chance to learn more about the Japanese attack on U.S. Naval forces in Pearl Harbor. They’ll see model warships from the 1970 movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and can view black-and-white film footage of actual attacks.

They can also see a chair that once was in the office of Adm. Yamamoto Isoroku, who masterminded Japan’s Pearl Harbor attacks.

In another room, devoted to exhibits for the U.S. Navy, visitors can peer through a periscope to get a view of the museum’s parking lot.

Patrons also can listen to the story of Capt. Leonard Schroeder, the first to step foot on Utah Beach during the invasion. Some of Schroeder’s personal artifacts are on display in a glass case, including a pair of boots from that historic day.

As visitors step into another room, they’ll see a French village scene, complete with a soldier dangling from a parachute caught on a church spire. The scene portrays a partial replica of the church Sainte-Mere-Eglise in the Cotentin Peninsula near the coast of Normandy, France.

Germans had occupied the town for four years until U.S. forces arrived on June 6, 1944, in Operation Boston, giving the town a claim of being one of the first liberated in the invasion.

The paratrooper depicted in the museum was Pvt. John M. Steele, who was taken prisoner by the Germans, but later rescued.

“There’s still an effigy (of Steele) hanging there (on the church), in real life,” Piazza said, to serve as a reminder of what happened.

Another scene in the museum sets the scene for the heroic actions of 1st Lt. Baldomero Lopez as he scales a wall. After topping the wall, he smothered a grenade to prevent it from killing the troops that were with him.

Lopez, a graduate of Hillsborough High School, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and a state veterans nursing home in Land O’ Lakes bears the name of the war hero.

Another highlight in the museum is a tribute to prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. There’s also a recreation of Rosie’s bar, made famous by the television series, “M.A.S.H.”

Other notable items on display include a uniform worn by Saddam Hussein and a playing card depicting him as the ace of spades from a deck of Iraqi war criminal recognition cards.

In the Salute to Services room, which is the first one visitors see coming in, there are crisp uniforms on display in clear cases. They represent every branch of the U.S. military, dating back to the Civil War.

Other rooms show off the museum’s collection of arms, grenades and land mines, and throughout the museum there are vehicles, which are fully operational. That collection includes jeeps, tanks, a 1942 Harley-Davidson motorcycle and an amphibious vehicle that can operate on land or water.

Other items of interest include an exhibit honoring the contribution of the Tuskegee Airmen and a wall of heroes, which features shadow boxes containing personal items, such as letters, photographs, post cards and dog tags.

Piazza, who is a former U.S. Marine, is at the museum nearly every day. He said it’s gratifying to see the war veterans when they tour through the museum. They often react when they see an item they would have used in the field.

“Emotionally, it puts them back in the trenches,” Piazza said.

He also enjoys visits from school groups.

“What continues to amaze me is the interest of these young kids – fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders,” Piazza said. “They are really, really interested. They ask really good questions.”

If you go
Armed Forces History Museum
WHAT: A collection of more than 100,000 war artifacts and military memorabilia, featuring oral histories, sound recordings, black-and-white footage and scenes depicting various wars.
WHERE: 2050 34th Way N., Largo, 33771
COST: Adults. $17.95; youths, 4 to 12, $12.95; senior citizens age 65 and older, $14.95; veterans, $14.95. Special prices are offered for group tours and special events.
INFO: Call (727) 539-8371, or visit ArmedForcesMuseum.com

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