Issue 17 Preview – Visit – Armed Forces History Museum Greg Burnham Join the Conversation Photography By Q Concepts Florida’s Hidden Military Gem is a Big Find in a Small City Every town has its own hidden gem, but how many small cities can claim to have a 35,000-square-foot museum dedicated to our nation’s armed forces? Situated in an industrial park in Largo, Florida, the Armed Forces Museum is the culmination of one man’s lifelong passion. More than 50 years ago, John Piazza Sr. started collecting military memorabilia after receiving a couple of hand grenades following his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. With that simple start, his passion for everything military took off like a Stinger Missile. The museum began in 1996 as a traveling display of military and historical items, gradually morphing into what it is today. About 95 percent of the items on display belong to Piazza, with the remainder coming from private donors, some of whom are local military veterans who volunteer their time at the museum. Those lucky enough to visit when they are there can hear the humble, firsthand accounts of their heroic deeds. Finding the museum is easy, thanks to billboard-sized signs showing visitors where to turn. The museum is located at a dead-end road surrounded by businesses and warehouses. Upon driving into the parking lot, where parking is free, you’re greeted by a MiG-21 PFM jet fighter. Numerous armored vehicles sit alongside the parking lot — this surplus of transportation outside the museum is just one sign of the many military artifacts to be found inside. Walking through the front door, one is greeted by pleasant museum employees and volunteers, as well as a small battalion of mannequins in the “Salute to Service” exhibit. There are more than two dozen dress uniforms representing all branches of the service — from the modern day U.S. Navy Full Dress White “choker” with the SEAL Trident to the Army uniform of the late Leonard T. Schroeder Jr., a Largo resident and the first American to step foot on the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion. The museum holds an impressive display of weapons and ordnance, but it’s the massive exhibits that make this museum unique. Upon walking through the double doors from the ordnance displays, you enter the trenches of World War I. The exhibit attacks your senses with the sounds of combat and the sights of battle from the view within the trenches. The only thing it lacks is the smell of the mustard gas — and we’re thankful for that. From the trenches you walk into a scene from Tora! Tora! Tora! with the World War II Pearl Harbor exhibit. A fleet of large-scale models from the movie take up a large part of the room. Also contained in the room are two chairs that once belonged to Admiral Yamamoto, the man who gave the order to bomb Pearl Harbor. Every branch is represented in the World War II exhibits. The Marines have their battles in the South Pacific epitomized with a fully operational 1942 Stuart tank and a recording of Iwo Jima survivor John Residence, who lives in Largo. Through the audio track, he provides visitors with his account of the battle of Iwo Jima and how, despite his injuries, he stayed with his unit to fight on for an additional 36 days! World War II is represented in several rooms. Exhibits on the South Pacific transition into Normandy and the “French Village” display. A full-size diorama of a Normandy beach with soldiers at the ready and a narration from Schroeder greets visitors at the start of the D-Day exhibits. After walking through the invasion, you find yourself walking down the cobblestone streets of a French village, which contains a replica of Sainte-Mere-Eglise church, best known for its incident involving John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. After the private’s parachute got caught on one of the church’s spires and he was shot in the foot, he pretended to be dead for several hours. He was taken prisoner by the Germans, but later rescued by American soldiers and rejoined his outfit. Steele can be seen “hanging around” the museum as well — just remember to look up. 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