The dramatic exhibits extol the fascination and honor of military history, stoke a personal interest.
Bombs crash, soldiers scream, a gun-powdered mist hangs in the air. Pinch me, because otherwise experiencing this taste of trench warfare in World War I is all too real. But it’s not nearly 100 years ago in Europe, it’s right here today in Largo, with many other remarkable adventures awaiting those visiting the Armed Forces History Museum.
I’m sure that you’ve been to many museums with the expected exhibits, displays and occasionally a film or audio tour — many of them boring. But you’ll seldom encounter a military museum with the color, intrigue and excitement of this one.
It has more than 100,000 artifacts contained in 50,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space. The magnitude of the authentic memorabilia and tools of war is appealing even to those of us who’ve never served in the military. The museum is the largest military collection in the southeastern U.S., featuring all five military branches plus war gear used in Japan, Germany, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. I’ve never enjoyed such a rare accumulation of uniforms, medals, knives, swords, handguns, rifles, grenades, land mines, bazookas, mortars, howitzers, missiles, communications gear and other paraphernalia of combat.
“We want everyone to enjoy a dynamic experience,” said Cindy Bosselmann, assistant executive director of the museum. “It represents five years of work that’s always evolving and getting better.”
I’ll second that. Some highlights of my visit besides the World War I trench: looking through a real submarine periscope; sitting behind the wheel of a simulated F-18 fighter that just took off from an aircraft carrier; walking amid a German outpost; entering an intricate portal to Pearl Harbor; strolling through a bullet-cratered French village; slinking along a segment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; visiting a wartime Officer’s Club; listening to veterans reminisce about D-Day; and of course witnessing the vast array of warfare equipment and gear.
And that’s just what’s on the inside. The outer area features a Russian MIG jet, tanks, recon and armored personnel carriers, amphibious trucks and numerous other military vehicles, all in working condition.
My interest in the military is personal. I never served due to drawing a high draft lottery number and being partially color blind — the latter keeping me out of the Air Force Academy. But as a military brat whose father fought in World War II as a fighter pilot, I’ve always been extremely appreciative of our service men and women. Dad’s exploits included parachuting out of his P-51 Mustang on a strafing mission over Belgium, and feigning a crash when in fact he worked behind the German lines to help coordinate U.S. and British intelligence and sabotage efforts. The Gestapo ultimately infiltrated the escape line, and Dad ended up in Stalag I in northern Germany, a POW camp liberated by the Russians near the end of the war.
“The museum draws upwards of 30,000 visitors per year, not counting field trips for kids and group visits by seniors, veterans and tourists,” Bosselmann said. Many educational programs and events are staged throughout the year, such as mock USO shows with celebrity impersonators and reenactments.
“Since the museum is not funded by any outside sources, annual fundraisers include a car show, golf tournament, chili cook-off, an organized sleepover, model building for kids, a Senior Expo, dances and more,” she said.
Special admission discounts are available for seniors, veterans and kids, and free admission for active and military personnel as well as young children. Check out the Armed Forces History Museum for opening hours and other details at (727) 539-8371 or visit armedforcesmuseum.com.
Dad never had the chance to visit the museum, but of course thoughts of him and others serving our country in war weighed heavily on my mind during the visit. Next time I’ll stay even longer.