| The Daytona Beach News-Journal
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DAYTONA BEACH — Inside a hidden rental space on the second floor of a Beach Street building, there are rifles from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, World War I and World War II.
The Veterans Museum and Educational Center also has a brick from the Hanoi Hilton, an internment camp in North Vietnam where American prisoners of war were held, interrogated and tortured in the 1960s and 1970s. Also on display is a piece of a Japanese fighter plane found on Ford Island, the center of the attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The little museum also has Communion cups made out of 50-caliber bullets, and a desk used by Douglas MacArthur, the American five-star general who commanded the Southwest Pacific forces during World War II.
The space above the Tic Toc shop at the corner of Beach Street and Magnolia Avenue was never meant to be the permanent home of the five-year-old museum. For the past two years, the aging veterans who run the war museum have been immersed in a frustrating hunt for the place that could be that permanent home for the thousands of remnants of American military service and conflicts. Their attempts to move into Daytona Beach International Airport or a city-owned building fizzled.
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But now they’ve finally found a place where at least for the next three to five years they’ll be able to spread out their constantly growing collection of war treasures for all to see.
The nonprofit museum has struck a deal to take over much of the Disabled American Veterans building on 8th Street in Holly Hill, located a short distance south of LPGA Boulevard between Nova Road and Ridgewood Avenue.
It’s a friendly marriage of necessity for both groups. The museum’s landlord — who never charged rent — has other plans for the riverfront space, and the organization was about to be homeless.
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And the DAV, which was ordered by its national office to shut down for four months because of the coronavirus, has seen its bingo game crowds and funds plummet from pre-pandemic levels. The DAV operates off of donations, and doesn’t receive any funds from the Veterans Administration.
So now the museum will give the DAV $1,000 per month to use most of the main hall and part of the large parking lot outside the wood and steel structure that went up in 1973. The museum will also help cover maintenance costs from time to time, and assist if utility bills rise after the veterans move in.
“The DAV has fallen on hard times because no one is coming in there,” said Robert Hawes, the museum’s president. “We do not have a lease. It’s two veterans organizations agreeing to work together.”
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‘They stonewalled us’
While the museum is grateful to have a place to call home, it’s not where the organization had hoped to put down roots. The nonprofit lobbied hard for a few years to move into the city government-owned recreation center on City Island across from Jackie Robinson Ballpark.
The deteriorating building a half block east of Beach Street was built in 1943 to give soldiers, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and locals a place overlooking the Halifax River to dance and have fun. In recent decades the structure slid into disrepair, and since it was boarded up in 2012 it’s been plagued with mold, water damage, buckling floorboards and peeling paint.
The military museum’s leaders pleaded for a chance to fix up the wooden-floored rec center that had been used for everything from square dancing to elections. But the city has moved toward tearing it down, and in February only two city commissioners expressed an interest in sinking money into the concrete block structure.
“I’m so disappointed with the city of Daytona Beach,” Hawes said. “The city has spent millions and millions of dollars on all kinds of crap, and they stonewalled us.”
Mayor Derrick Henry did give the museum $7,000 raised in a golf tournament. But it wasn’t enough to get them into the recreation center, which the veterans estimated needed at least $200,000 in repairs and renovations.
Hawes said he received a much different reaction from Holly Hill City Manager Joe Forte.
“He said he was humbled we would move into Holly Hill, and he said the city will do everything it can to help,” Hawes said. “What a difference.”
Forte said he was very impressed when he toured the current museum site on Beach Street.
“It was just awe inspiring,” said Forte, whose father was a Korean War veteran. “It almost gives you the chills when you see what they have.”
Forte said having the museum in Holly Hill will add to the city’s cultural offerings, and the city will promote the facility on its Facebook page. Holly Hill doesn’t have the money to help out financially now, but might be able to send funds in the future, Forte said.
“We are very excited to have them here,” the city manager said.
Hawes is starting to look toward the future now. He and others in his group are emptying exhibit cases, boxing up the artifacts and slowly moving them to their new home a few miles to the north. They’re using a combination of moving trucks and the pickup trucks of volunteers.
The move and organizing everything in the new space will take weeks, so Hawes estimates he can open at the DAV site around late October or early November.
Hawes is trying to raise $10,000 for the move and improvements at the new site, and he has opened a GoFundMe account to collect donations: https://www.gofundme.com/f/veterans-museum-has-to-move?utm_source=customer&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=p_cf+share-flow-1
So far he’s raised $545, but he’s hopeful more money will come in. He’s also accepting checks at P.O. Box 407, Daytona Beach, 32115.
He said he needs at least $3,000 to pay movers, and $500-$700 to foot the DAV’s bill to move its bingo equipment. The rest of the money would go toward electrical work, installation of LED lights, security cameras and construction of bookshelves to create a library.
“We do have some money in the bank, so we won’t bankrupt ourselves with the move,” Hawes said. “But we need to replenish that.”
‘We can help them’
The City Island Recreation Center would have given them 6,000 square feet. The one-story DAV building will provide 3,600 square feet, about 400 square feet more than what the nonprofit has been using in its current location. The museum could also invest in a $2,500 storage garage that could be placed on the 5-acre Holly Hill site if needed, Hawes said.
The parking lot will open new possibilities for the museum, providing a place to showcase outdoor displays of tanks, jeeps and other equipment used in wars that are part of traveling exhibits.
And the new building will give the museum its first chance to welcome disabled veterans who couldn’t access the second-story space on Beach Street. They’ll also have access to a kitchen now for special events.
The DAV will continue to hold its bingo games and provide veterans services, but the museum is free to be open seven days a week and set its own hours.
The downside with the move is the museum will lose its spontaneous walk-up traffic. The facility’s quiet presence on Beach Street still offered one second-story window with mannequins in military uniforms looking down on the sidewalks and road below.
The plus of the new site is people who come to the museum will seek it out on purpose and probably have a greater interest in what’s inside. About 5,500 people have visited the current site annually, and collectively they’ve left behind about $6,000 annually in donations. Hawes hopes to see both of those numbers grow.
What’s already mushrooming is the museum’s collection.
“Every single week we have four or five people come in with uniforms, medals and flags that they don’t want to throw in the trash,” Hawes said. “It’s snowballing.”
He said there are 67,000 veterans in Volusia County.
The DAV, meanwhile, is contracting its use of the building and planning to use a smaller hall on site for its bingo games. Harold Holloway, the DAV’s senior vice commander, said it’s a survival tactic for his organization and the building that started out as a Quonset hut built by the Army Corps of Engineers for disabled veterans.
“We can help them and help ourselves,” Holloway said.
Hawes is an 87-year-old Korean War veteran who was in the thick of combat. Holloway is a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran who worked 16-hour days on riverboats transporting wounded soldiers and supplies. They’ve become fast friends. Having seen some of the worst a war can churn out, they have each battled PTSD and speak the same language.
“There’s not a night I’m not in Korea by 3 a.m.,” Hawes said, referring to his recurring nightmares.
Holloway, who was also a volunteer firefighter on Long Island for 50 years, is riddled with health problems from exposure to Agent Orange and the trauma of his daily dealings with wounded and deceased soldiers.
“I Googled Agent Orange, and I sat at my computer and cried because I knew I was doomed,” Holloway said. “It was in the air, and we didn’t know.”
With Agent Orange exposure and PTSD such common problems among soldiers, Hawes said he and Holloway might team up on some new support efforts.
“We advise them what to do and help them file their claims,” Holloway said.
He said his chapter has 1,278 members, most of whom are Vietnam veterans, although only about 25 of them are actively involved. He hopes having the museum on site will raise awareness of the help that’s available to veterans.
“It’ll give exposure to the DAV,” Holloway said. “A lot of people don’t know it’s there. The museum will let them know we’re there.”