November may herald the start of the holiday season, but it also brings a more somber celebration in Veterans Day, the national holiday set originally by presidential decree in 1919 to mark the end of World War I a year earlier. Then called Armistice Day, it was expanded in 1945, near the end of another world conflagration. Today, the holiday honors all those, living and deceased, who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Henderson County has sent its share of men and women into battle, but it wasn’t until two years ago that a special place was set aside to keep the memory of their service alive. Veterans Hall, housed just outside the Veterans Service office at the Department of Human Resources building on Spartanburg Highway, displays uniforms, personal articles, letters, postcards and photographs from veterans covering wars right up to present conflicts in the Middle East.
Veterans Hall was the brainchild of the county’s Veterans Service officer, Mike Murdock, and former NC State Representative Carolyn Justus.
“Three friends and I were receiving phone calls from an article that Mike ran in the paper about interviewing WWII vets,” recalls Justus, who serves as chairperson of the Henderson County Heritage Museum, under whose administration the Hall operates. “The calls we volunteers received said they had some military mementos that they would like preserved.”
Murdock and Justus decided to approach the county commissioners about a unique space dedicated to honoring those who served.
“Mike went to them with the idea, and County Manager Steve Wyatt and the commissioners were supportive,” adds Justus, who asked and received from the Museum Board $5,000 dollars in startup costs.
“Since we had a really good Civil War display already at the Heritage Museum, we chose to start with WWII,” says Jo Ann Fain, vice chair of the Board. World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Iraq, and Afghanistan are now all represented.
The Hall’s exhibits are arranged by conflict and include a Times-News Honor Roll centerfold from 1944 listing all of the county’s men and women in service at the time. “Very frequently, veterans and their families stop by and find ‘their’ veteran on the list,” says Murdock. “We solicited exhibits by word of mouth, but since we began, the contributions have increased significantly.”
Also popular is the display of banners signed by veterans just before they’re flown by HonorAir (which shares space in Veterans Hall) to the nation’s capital, to see the World War II Memorial there.
HonorAir’s Jeff Miller, a charter member of the foundation supporting the Washington memorial, happily helped set up the Hall and locate material for the exhibit.
“My dad was a WWII veteran, and my mom’s brother was killed in the war, but neither mom or dad got to see the memorial in Washington,” Miller explains. “I started HonorAir in 2006 as a way to honor my parents.” Since then, the group has flown nearly 150,000 veterans to the capital. Miller loaned his father’s Navy uniform and photos from his years in the service, and put Justus and Murdock in touch with the families of other veterans who might be donors.
Like Miller, both Justus and Murdock have ties to military service. “My dad was in the Army, and my late husband served 28 years on active and reserve duty with the United States Air Force,” says Justus. “I just took his flight helmet to Veterans Hall. We’re always seeking materials and are always glad to talk with families about their items.” Murdock, the son of a veteran, served in the Marine Corps for 26 years, including active duty and administrative duties at Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington.
Neither Murdock nor Justus has an official estimate of how many people have passed through the Hall since its official opening in April 2013, but the two rededication ceremonies held over the two Memorial Day weekends since have been well-attended, including participants from the county’s Honor Guard and Patriot Guard, who offer a three-volley gun salute and retiring of the colors to the mournful sound of “Taps.” Being located along a busy passageway in the Human Resources building helps draw visitors, too.
But challenges remain, starting with attracting more material for exhibit. “I really wanted an expanded WWII German Prisoner of War camp section,” Justus says, “but I haven’t been able to find the items we’d need for display.” (One POW did, however, attend last year’s rededication ceremony, although he was a German POW who had surrendered to Allied forces, had been incarcerated in a detention camp in Texas, and later moved to Asheville as a naturalized U.S. citizen.) Space is getting to be an issue, too — to the point that all donated photographs have to be printed no larger than 5-by-7 to be accommodated.
Financial constraints are an additional challenge, with only about $2,000 a year from the Heritage Museum’s budget allocated to the Hall, and with most of that used for printing and mounting photos on foam core boards. “We’ve managed to have two display cabinets built with the help of Apple Country Wood Crafters, but we could certainly use money, as all nonprofits could,” Justus comments. Then, too, there is the basic challenge of letting people know of the Hall’s existence.
“We need to get special groups to tour, like civic clubs, schools, and so on,” notes Fain. “And we need more volunteers, as well.”
With no sign that conflicts around the world involving U.S. military personnel will be decreasing anytime soon, the Hall may need to locate larger quarters at some point.
“We have a section now on the Global War on Terror,” Murdock points out. “Unfortunately, Henderson County has already lost three of her sons to that war.”
To donate money or military items to Veterans Hall, contact the Hendersonville County Heritage Museum at 828-694-1619. The Hall is open during normal business hours at the Henderson County Social Services Building at 1200 Spartanburg Highway.