When it comes to the business of war and national defense, no part of the United States has a longer or deeper record than Hampton Roads.
Even before Washington's victory at Yorktown ensured the independence of a country that has fought in more than 20 major conflicts since 1781, the region was a critical British colonial base that clashed with two powerful Dutch fleets during the late 1600s and launched the French and Indian War in 1754.
Not until after the end of World War I, however, did a former Army major who had helped ship more than 260,000 doughboys to Europe from Newport News recognize how profoundly that military connection had shaped the region.
And 90 years after George B. Collings and the American Legion put their first relics on display, the collection of nearly 70,000 objects at the Virginia War Museum is widely recognized by military historians as both a revealing reflection of Hampton Roads and a national treasure.
"This is one of the finest military history collections in the country — without a doubt — but what makes it important in Hampton Roads is what it tells us about the history and character of the region," says former museum director John V. Quarstein, describing the achievements to be celebrated today in a 90th anniversary program.
"This is one of the most important places in the country in terms of preparing for, waging and winning overseas wars, and that partnership with the military has defined us socially, politically and economically since World War I. We would not be who and what we are today without it."
Just what Collings was thinking when he picked up his first artifact in 1923 was never recorded.
But there's no doubt about his lifelong passion for preserving the physical evidence of American military enterprise and sacrifice — or his conviction that such objects were critically important to the history of both Hampton Roads and the nation.
Walking through an abandoned army camp off 64th Street and Warwick Boulevard, the Harvard-educated attorney picked up an old megaphone used to direct more than 64,000 men and nearly 50,000 animals that passed through the site during the war.
But instead of tossing it back, he kept it — then started using his connections as a former transportation officer to acquire what became thousands of objects.
"The collection continued to grow," Collings told a Daily Press reporter in 1954.
"First, a group of relics was stored in the basement of the Tidewater Hotel …Once it was located in the basement at 26th and Washington, and another time in the old Nachman building."
Working with other members of the Braxton-Perkins Post of the American Legion — plus his connections as a state delegate and head of the Chamber of Commerce — Collings spent 17 years seeking the support needed to build a dedicated museum structure.
But when it opened in Huntington Park on Nov. 11, 1941, as the new American Legion Memorial Museum of Virginia, his efforts to strengthen the collection only redoubled.
Many news artifacts came from the outbreak of World War II and the 1.7 million soldiers who departed or returned through the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation at Newport News.
Building a collection
Some of the choicest objects, however, hailed from Collings' simple yet persistent genius for putting out his hand and asking.
"He's standing at the docks collecting stuff. He's talking to supply sergeants at Camp Patrick Henry, Fort Monroe and Fort Eustis. He's inviting generals to his Veterans Day and Memorial Day events and asking them to make donations," Quarstein said.
"He was bold. He didn't mind picking up the phone and asking important people for artifacts. That's how he got President Harry Truman's World War I helmet."
By the time of his death in 1962, Collings had amassed nearly 50,000 objects, including rare Japanese war trophies from Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, shoulder insignia from British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, and a chilling section of Nazi death camp fence donated by 6th Army Gen. Jacob L. Devers.
But even the passionate collector realized his hoard of treasures was jumbled.
"Too much of it is in my head," he confessed in 1954, describing the lack of records explaining his objects.
"And we've got to get it down on paper."
Not until 1978 — following the resignation of a director accused of "improper bookkeeping" — did the city-owned museum finally hire a trained professional to address its mounting problems. And over 30 years, Quarstein not only transformed the institution into a modern museum but also expanded its reach into historical preservation.
Many reforms took place behind the scenes, but over nearly a decade they addressed such pressing issues as cataloging the massive collection, improving its care through new lighting and environmental controls and winning accreditation from the American Association of Museums.
Far more dramatic changes unfolded before the public's eye, including an addition in 1989 and the shift from a decades-long memorial impulse toward storytelling, living history and education as well as a series of new exhibits.
"We had a great collection. But it wasn't always displayed in the best way. It wasn't always focused on interpretation and education," curator Dick Hoffeditz says.
"That's how it was for many years until John came."
By 1990, the museum bristled with more than $3 million in additions and improvements, including a new theater and education wing.
It also had started venturing beyond Huntington Park to organize several historic preservation campaigns, including numerous Civil War fortifications as well as the historic houses at Endview Plantation and Lee Hall.
Once slated for development, the former Confederate headquarters at Lee Hall was painstakingly restored into a striking example of 1850s Italianate architecture. Its English basement was repurposed into a revealing exhibit space exploring the Peninsula Campaign and the epic 1862 siege lines preserved inside nearby Newport News Park.
"We raised $3.4 million to pay for the work at Lee Hall," Quarstein said. "It might not be there today had we not stepped up."
In recent years, the museum has struggled with numerous reverses, including the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating funds in 2000 due to dramatic reductions in state cultural funding, plus persistent cuts in city support during the decade that followed.
Though Quarstein managed to blunt the impact by obtaining special appropriations of as much as $750,000 a year from the General Assembly for capital improvements, he was not replaced when he left in 2008, and a staff that once included more than a dozen full- and part-time employees has since dwindled to a mere handful.
"These are tough times for the museum," Hoffeditz explained, as he and his remaining colleagues tried to prepare for today's anniversary program.
"But we have to do the best we can with the hand we've been dealt."
Still, as recently as 2004 the museum began seeing the fruits of its successful effort to lure a nationally known collection of American military uniforms and artifacts into a partnership.
Though courted by several other prominent institutions, the Company of Military Historians finally decided to come to Newport News because of the rich potential for meshing its own rare holdings — which are particularly strong in the years before the Civil War — with the museum's acclaimed collection of nearly 2,000 military uniforms.
"It just made sense," Company President Joseph M. Thatcher said at the time, describing the decision.
"The War Museum had the broad interpretive mandate that covered the breadth and depth of our collection. It had the exhibits. It had the living history interpretive programs. And it had an excellent track record in this kind of partnership.
"Where else can you go to find both a table cover from the Monitor and a wonderful collection of Viet Cong propaganda posters?" he added.
"Not many places have a collection with that kind of breadth, depth and uniqueness."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783.
Want to go?
90th Anniversary of the Virginia War Museum
Where: 9285 Warwick Blvd., Newport News
When: 1-3 p.m. today, Sunday, Nov. 10
Information: 757-247-8523 or http://www.warmuseum.org
Monday, Nov. 11, 11 a.m.
Sponsored by American Legion, Braxton-Perkins Post #25, this annual ceremony is held at the Victory Arch, 25th Street and West Avenue, in downtown Newport News. After the ceremony, the public is invited to learn about America's rich military heritage at the Virginia War Museum. Visit the museum on Veterans Day and receive $1 off the posted admission prices.
Pearl Harbor Day Memorial Ceremony
Saturday, Dec. 7, 4 p.m.
This annual event features a wreath-laying ceremony at the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association monument on the grounds adjacent to the museum, 9285 Warwick Blvd., Newport News.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun