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As defense cut bullets whiz by, museum has hope of survival


Even though defense budgets are being cut and military bases closed, Fort George G. Meade's museum curator sees a future for his project.

"In terms of what we do, it makes us more important as a training tool for soldiers and also a reminder of the sacrifices of the soldiers in the past, and in a sense, as a warning of what can happen if we aren't careful," Robert Johnson said.

The museum is keeper to many military artifacts: Nike missiles, hand grenades, a full-size replica of a World War I trench. Since 1971, the memories and memorabilia have been displayed in a building that housed the base's telephone switchboard in the 1930s.

The museum's three staff members are working to take the exhibits out of the glass cases and make them more accessible. The staff is also visiting schools to give talks about the world wars and working to establish a children's corner in the museum.

"The stories we're telling now we will continue to tell but there are other stories in the past that have been left out," said Mr. Johnson, 36. "There is an emphasis on the war period. But we have all these years between the wars, the '50s and the '60s [to cover]."

The staff also wants to build an addition for two World War I tanks now being restored. One of the tanks, a "Mark XIII," is the only one of its kind that has survived. Built in an Illinois factory in 1918, the tank was the first model made by the Army. It never saw combat.

The museum last expanded in 1981 when a wing was added. Today the museum has two galleries, one dedicated to Fort Meade, the other to the First Army. The unit is headquartered at the base, but will be deactivated by Sept. 30.

Through artifacts and photos, the Fort Meade wing shows that soldiers have been in the area since the 1700s. Soldiers in the Continental Army guarded and worked at the Patuxent Forge, now part of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. During the Civil War, a large Union camp set up where the National Security Agency is today.

In 1917, Congress made the property a temporary Army training post and named it "Camp Meade" in honor of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, who led Union troops to a decisive victory at the Battle of Gettysburg.

A decade later the camp became a permanent base. As many as 3.5 million soldiers passed through the base during World War II. The fort's tank school became the nation's premier armor training ground during the world wars. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. George S. Patton trained at the school.

The First Army gallery follows the unit from its first campaign at the St. Mihiel Salient in France in World War I through the Persian Gulf War. There are uniforms, a bullet-riddled bust of Hitler, even a "cootie" or body lice found in the Argonne Forest. A soldier kept the cootie in his scrapbook.

The museum also wants to add to its history of the "Hello Girls." The women came to the camp in 1917 and were among the first women to serve in the military. They trained as telephone operators in wooden barracks where the golf course now is located.

While certain collections need to be enlarged, there is little room for expansion at the museum, said Mr. Johnson. He constantly gets donations from people cleaning out their attics.

Of the 20,000 people who visit each year, many are veterans who remember the fort's heady days. Last fall three former German soldiers toured the museum. They were among the 3,800 prisoners of war held on base between 1942 and 1944.

"They talked about how well they were treated at Fort Meade and how they actually had fond memories," Mr. Johnson said. "One said that was the first time he was in a calm, peaceful area and had something to eat everyday. For him, it was a step up."

Even veterans who didn't serve at Fort Meade visit the museum. During the weekend, Walter Demsky, who served as an airman in World War II, came for the first time and brought his two grandsons.

"I think it's quite a nice museum. I think it could be advertised more," said Mr. Demsky, 74, of Brooklyn Park. "I imagine a lot of people don't know about it. It's a hidden jewel for an Army museum."

The Fort George G. Meade Museum is open to the public and is free of charge. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call (301) 677-6966.

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