New Jersey veterans museum makes comeback from Sandy

Volunteer Jerry Travers paints the ironwork on an 1861 Civil War cannon that was damaged by the flooding in the museum during Hurricane Sandy.
Volunteer Jerry Travers paints the ironwork on an 1861 Civil War cannon that was damaged by the flooding in the museum during Hurricane Sandy. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 08, 2013

SEA GIRT, N.J. - The museum was prepared for the worst. A line of sandbags ringed the building, and priceless artifacts and records were raised about four feet off the floor.

But when Hurricane Sandy made landfall, the effort to save the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey "was not enough," said curator and Army Guard Capt. Vince Solomeno.

The storm surge from the ocean less than a quarter-mile away crashed through a garage door, then poured into a large room where a Civil War-era submarine, antique military vehicles, and other memorabilia were displayed.

About five feet of salt water picked up chairs, tables, and cabinets, and soaked historic uniforms, weapons, and military records before exiting through double doors at the opposite end of the building.

"Everything was in shambles," Solomeno said. "It was a disturbing sight. To lose this collection, we'd lose the tangible history of New Jersey's citizen soldiers and airmen."

But the Monmouth County museum has made a comeback during the last several months, he said, with help from dozens of volunteers, thousands of dollars in contributions from a foundation, and guidance from other military officials who faced even more severe challenges after Hurricane Katrina struck a similar museum in New Orleans.

A portion of the 14,000-square-foot Sea Girt facility - on the campus of the National Guard Training Center off Camp Drive - is expected to reopen by April even as the rebuilding and restoration of artifacts continue. Admission is free.

"We're looking forward to serving the public again, but our attention continues to be on the stabilization of the collection," said Solomeno, 27. "Our volunteers are making sure the uniforms and artifacts are brought back to the way they were before the storm."

This week, power saws could be heard across the museum and sawdust covered the floor as workers constructed display cases and refurbished artifacts. Many items such as leather accoutrements were spotted with mold spores.

"We're making progress - absolutely - in a measured, ordered manner," said assistant curator Joseph Bilby, 69, a historian, author, and Vietnam veteran who lives in Wall Township. "We'll be ready to reopen in April and we're expecting attendance to continue its upward trend."

The museum, which had 5,000 visitors in its last full year of operation, tells the story of New Jersey from the 17th century to the present through the lens of the military. Its building - an armory and officers club before becoming the museum in 1980 - sits across from a field filled with tanks, fighter aircraft, and artillery pieces.

In one room, Solomeno and Bilby pointed out a rare ornate uniform produced by Brooks Brothers for New Jersey's Essex Troop in the early 20th century.

The blue tunic - with its gold epaulets and sleeve scrolling and stripes - was worn by a soldier who accompanied Woodrow Wilson to his inauguration as president. The unit fought during the Normandy campaign in World War II and was among the first to enter liberated Paris.

The uniform was "in a case that was tipped over and under water," said Solomeno. "It's been stabilized, dried, and vacuumed - but it needs professional cleaning.

"Some of the uniforms will be displayed when we reopen," he said.

The records of New Jersey men and women who served the state's military also have been a top priority. They were submerged for up to 12 hours and removed by conservators who froze them to prevent mold from growing. The documents will be preserved and returned to the museum for researchers.

At the same time, some volunteers - most of them veterans, such as Duncan MacQueen of Somerset - have been inventorying the museum's weapons collection.

"I come in two or three times a week and put information in the computer, including photos and serial numbers," said MacQueen, 64. "The future looks good.

"I hope to be here helping out much longer, the good Lord willing and the river don't rise," he said.

In the nearby vehicle display room, where the high-water mark could still be seen on the wall, Jerry Travers of Brick and Carmen Richichi of Neptune were busily dabbing black paint onto the metal parts of a Civil War cannon manufactured in 1861. The two served together in the New Jersey Army National Guard.

"I was amazed at the damage done by the water, but we are making a comeback," said Travers, 75.

Added Richichi, 82: "Everything was so beautiful and then devastated. We've been cleaning weapons for the past two months."

The room around them was filled with tables that held parts of the artifact collection, including boots, belts, binoculars and uniforms. Along one wall was an old Soviet antiaircraft gun, a French World War I artillery piece and a collection of artillery shells. Ironically, many of the artifacts except for a Civil War-era submarine called the Intelligent Whale had been submerged.

But help came from many quarters: the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle, Pa.; U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, Va.; and the Jackson Barracks Military Museum in New Orleans, which was seriously damaged during the flooding that accompanied Katrina. The Tawani Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to military history, provided a $28,000 grant.

"The good news is that we've stopped the deterioration," Solomeno said. "We lost less than 2 percent of the collection. But we're not out of the woods yet."


Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


 

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