PA Military Museum Preserves, Honors Contributions of State’s Service Members
Visitors to the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg are greeted with huge BB-38s, the two-gun barrels of the USS Pennsylvania. Adjacent to that is Abigail, a Sherman tank, which sits in “Hurtgen Forest,” one of its two history-based forests.
“Obviously, we are not in Germany, Belgium, France, Normandy, or Pearl Harbor, which in the historical world is called place-based education, where you are at the place where something happened,” says Tyler O. Gum, site administrator of the museum. “You’re at the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Gettysburg, Chickamauga, you’re at Normandy – you’re at all those historical places. Here, you’re not there – you’re in the central part of Pennsylvania. So what we try to do is bring those things to you. To do that, of course, we have the Hurtgen Forest. That way you can feel what is was actually like to be in that forest in WWII at the Sherman tank.”
Behind the shrine wall, the Argonne Offensive is being interpreted through the Forest of Argonne.
“Obviously, we’re not in France; but the Argonne Forest, as far as what we are trying to interpret, is as close to it as we can get you,” Gum says.
Dedicated to the military history of the state, the Pennsylvania Military Museum has been honoring our veterans, past to present-day, and educating the public of the military history of the commonwealth for nearly 50 years.
It recounts the stories of our citizen soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines – the men and women of the commonwealth who served their state and nation. Operated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the museum depicts Pennsylvania’s military history, emphasizing the 20th-century roles of Pennsylvania-based units and of Pennsylvanians who served in all branches of the armed forces.
One question Gum gets asked often is why there is a stream flowing in front of the museum.
“The reason that this is here in the midst of our property and other properties situated around it is because of the river vessel in France that we fought alongside of,” he says.
The museum occupies the high ground on the property, with a huge wide-open space at the front of the grounds.
“When you’re outside on the grounds of the PA Military Museum, there’s a lot of wide-open space – some of that is on purpose as far as landscape architecture,” Gum says. “Other parts of it are in some ways part of the heritage and history of the site.”
Gum adds that the site is an approved landing zone by the Air National Guard.
“We can actually land rotor aircraft here. We’ve had Life Flight use this for a medivac for a patient, which isn’t new and goes back decades. So that is why you have the huge open grounds. We could actually fit two or three easily.”
The landing zone at the front parade grounds has also come in handy for the museum’s celebration of service ceremonies. This service to the fallen has been going on for 100 years, since WWI.
“Still today, they will bring up several rotor aircraft or helicopters,” Gum says. “They will bring up the commanders from time to time; and when the governor is available, he’ll come up. We have several thousand people attend the service honoring the sacrifice of the commonwealth citizen soldier. They bring up the helicopters, the Strykers, the Humvees – all kinds of wonderful displays for the public.”
At the 28th Division National Shrine on the grounds, names of the fallen are read off, and a public tailgate is held. Attendees are also invited to talk to the troops and their families and get together as a community.
“It’s a full invite to everyone across the state of Pennsylvania, not just local,” Gum says, “because the 28th Division is comprised of soldiers across Pennsylvania, as well as into other states. It’s a wonderful effort to preserve and protect this wonderful legacy.”
While most museums don’t have monuments and at many national monuments there may not be a museum, the PA Military Museum is unusual because it has both.
“It’s a deep honor to be able to have the museum as far as interpreting and preserving the history, but also our outreach and efforts with the Gold Star families to honor our fallen,” Gum says. “There is no greater service or sacrifice than that of our American soldiers and sailors. So, being able to have the monuments with the museum is an amazing honor. It’s very special.”
In addition to being the 28th Division’s National Shrine, the museum includes all five branches of the military – giving visitors the most comprehensive military history of Pennsylvania.
“That includes everything at the front line and at the home front – everything from the manufacture and production, the mathematics and engineering, as well as rationing, protest, and counter-protest; and of course, we also do the tactics and the technology – on the battlefield, in the air, and at sea,” Gum says. “So it’s a wonderful juxtaposition of stories and people all in one location.”
The museum is open year-round and features more than 80 events annually – inside and outside. Inside the theater, which hold more than 100 people, there are tours, speaking events, movies, documentaries, exhibitions, reunions, commissioning ceremonies – the list goes on.
In the museum gallery, tours are conducted in which hosts talk about tactics, technology, and the logistics and reality of warfare. Rather than filter it, the museum tries to give visitors a raw picture of what war is.
“In the grand scheme of things, whether we like it or not, war is probably the most politically incorrect thing that man can do; but unfortunately, man is very good at it,” Gum says. “When you have war break out, clearly, diplomacy has failed, and you are at that last resort. What we try to do is give that obvious clear picture of what it is we’re asking our men and women to do; and also interpret the importance of what they are doing on the world theater, but also here at the home front to protecting our freedoms and our way of life.”
As visitors to the museum walk through the tactical area, they learn about infantry tactics, artillery, mechanized warfare, and small arms. In the sea room in the back of the gallery, they learn stories from the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
“What we try to do is give a very personal story with it – a personal touch where you get that personal story, that face, that name, that location from Pennsylvania,” Gum says.
In the heart of the museum are two temporary exhibit areas. One is dedicated to World War I. This year marks the centennial of the Great War. The United States’ entry into WWI was 1917, and the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
“This year for Veterans Day, we have two commemorations going on,” Gum said. “We have the 100th anniversary of the Armistice being signed, and we also have the 50th anniversary of Vietnam, which is still ongoing. So we have this overlap right now and we’re trying to pay homage to both.”
The museum will also be putting on a temporary exhibit for Private First Class Foster Sayers, displaying his Medal of Honor. On November 12, 1944, Sayers was cut down by enemy fire near Thionville, France, and received the Medal of Honor for acts of bravery. Also on display will be his citation, his Purple Heart, and Bronze Star, accompanied by several family photographs.
“It will be a wonderful exhibit for the 75th anniversary of WWII, which will also be the 75th anniversary of him being killed in action,” Gum said. “It will be a small and very personal exhibit to this gentleman, who was a Centre County resident.”
The museum is also planning an exhibit displaying the different types of sub-compact power across WWII, including small arms, as well as hand-to-hand combat items such as the Marine Corps Ka-Bar, and two different types of hand grenades – one American, the other Japanese.
“It’s not very often that you get to see de-militarized hand grenades up close,” Gum says.
The items are donated from veterans and their families.
There are more temporary displays on the ramp to the museum.
On the second floor of the museum is a secure, climate-controlled area where its collection of holdings is stored.
Among the museum’s stored items are captured battle flags from different campaigns, particularly from WWII, helmets, boots, uniform items, medical equipment, mortars, machine guns, sub-machine guns, hand guns, and bladed weaponry. The items can date as far back as WWI and up to present-day Iraq and Afghanistan.
“If it’s military history-related and connected to Pennsylvania, we want one, have one, need one, or we’ll somehow acquire one,” Gum says.
All donations to the Military Museum are handled through the Friends of the Pennsylvania Military Museum, a nonprofit membership organization established in partnership with the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
Also on the second floor is the museum’s research library, which doesn’t store personal records or medical records due to laws and regulations.
“The other reason is because of space,” Gum said. “That’s when we refer folks to the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Department of Military Veteran Affairs. What we have in our research library is first editions, rare book collections, as well as division and unit histories of Pennsylvania.”
Growing up in Lewistown, Gum recalls frequently visiting the museum as a child.
“I could definitely be found climbing all over tanks and falling off of them,” he says.
Gum is only the fourth administrator since the museum officially opened to the public in 1969. The cornerstone for the museum was laid in 1968.
“It’s an honor to be the fourth guy, let alone be working here at all, and serving those who have served us,” he says. “When you get to work with a Gold Star mom or dad, making sure their son or daughter’s story gets preserved – it makes it all worth it. You can serve those who serve now and still give back somehow. It’s wonderful. It’s a dream come true.”
Upcoming Events at the Museum
- Kids Day will be held on Saturday, November 17. Youths may try on field gear and head gear from the museum education collection and visit education stations in the galleries from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
- On December 7, the museum will hold its Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day Tribute at 12:45 p.m. beneath the guns of the USS Pennsylvania, which was a witness to that attack.
For more information on the Pennsylvania Military Museum, visit pamilmuseum.org.
Jason Klose is a freelance writer from Mifflinburg.