AN ECLECTIC SALUTE TO MILITARY HISTORY; Green Cove Springs Museum Offers Unusual Mixture of Wartime Memorabilia

Article excerpt

Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

Bud Nelson's desk is covered with most of the usual items: stapler, cups full of pens, a calendar and various official-looking documents. But right in the middle of it is a U.S. Marine Corps non-commissioned officer's sword.

And that's not even close to the oddest thing you'll find there, his friend Herb Steigelman said.

"There were about six or seven [M-1] rifles laid on there this morning," Steigelman said recently.

That a .30-cal machine gun, sandbags and a host of other wartime memorabilia are within an arm's length makes sense, given that it's inside the Military Museum of North Florida. The museum's roughly 1,000-item collection surrounds and fills a 4,000-square-foot Quonset hut on Florida 16 in Green Cove Springs.

The museum's collection and existence stem from the passion Nelson, Steigelman and a network of friends share for collecting military paraphernalia and sharing it with the world.

"Somebody has to educate the younger generations and let them see and feel and touch" history, he said.

They did that recently when the 4-acre site hosted a celebration of the 65th anniversary of the Mothball Fleet, a 600-ship flotilla of decommissioned naval vessels stored on the St. Johns River in Green Cove Springs until the 1960s.

Nelson says the museum's location in Green Cove makes sense, given the area's rich military history. Besides the fleet, the community also once boasted a naval air station where some 30,000 sailors and Marines were stationed during World War II.

In fact, the museum sits on a corner of that installation, known as Lee Field.

But it's even deeper for Nelson, who was bitten by the collecting bug in 1943 when he found a bazooka that had fallen off a troop train near his home in the mountains of Virginia.

"I continued to collect until my house and garage were full, as well as outbuildings and sheds."

Steigelman has a thing for military history, too. He was a history major at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., before embarking on a career as a Marine Corps officer.

"That man is a walking history book," Nelson said of his curator.

That's clear when Steigelman gives tours of the facility, offering descriptions as wide and diverse as the museum's eclectic collection.

He talks at length about Revolutionary War flintlock rifles (plus the accompanying ammunition and powder horns), gives intricate backgrounders on Confederate army swords, Civil War era pistols, World War I artillery shells and bayonets. With the same ease and enthusiasm most people reserve for pictures of their kids, he discusses photographs, maps, helmets and machine guns from World War II, and flight suits, radios and anti-personnel mines from Vietnam.

A touch of sadness creeps into his voice when the tour comes to present-day equipment.

"We can't get as many [modern] artifacts because they're still in use," Steigelman said.

But then it's quickly onto aircraft, submarine and tank models, photographs, uniformed mannequins, written histories of battles and framed front pages declaring everything from exploits of the Nazi battleship Bismark to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. There's even a "British corner" that includes an RAF pilot's smock worn and war-era morale posters.

There are also enemy items from all those wars, including Japanese rifles, a German Afrika Korps tunic, North Vietnamese hand grenades and a replica of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher from Iraq.

There's also a store where coffee mugs, models, clocks, unit patches and more are sold. …