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Melrose man finds dream job at museum

If anyone has ever found his dream job, it’s Doug Thompson.  A military buff since childhood, Doug has amassed a huge collection of military memorabilia and reference books in his Melrose home and can tell you more about them than most veterans.  (No, he never wore the uniform. “College and family beckoned,” he explained.) Now he works several days a week at the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley, where he had been a volunteer.  He catalogs, organizes and restores items that are donated on almost a daily basis, and does many of the other chores associated with keeping up a first-rate museum. Sometimes he even spends the night in his workroom—on an Army cot, of course. “I’ve loved military history since I was a little boy, and to be able to come in on a daily basis and put my hands on Minnesota military history is really great,” he says. Ft. Ripley was mapped out in 1849 by explorer Zebulon Pike, who, on the same expedition, decided on the location of Ft. Snelling. Although it never saw a battle, Ft. Ripley became a trading post and trained soldiers for the Civil and Indian Wars.  Discontinued in 1877, it was rebuilt as Camp Ripley in 1929.  Today it trains National Guard soldiers in the summer and gives foreign troops a taste of Minnesota winter. The museum opened in 1977, under the direction of the Minnesota Historical Society.  Guarded by an imposing array of cannons, a scale model shows the early fort. Life-sized soldiers stand ready for battle, one in the blue uniform of a Civil War Union soldier, one in a slouch hat and blazing red shirt, the only available uniform, that made the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment an easy target in its early days. Another museum highlight is the first artillery shell casing fired by American forces against the Germans in North Africa. “The minute the casing came out of the breech, an officer realized how important it was,” Doug explains. “He took the casing and inscribed on it the names of all the men in the battery.”   Even Hitler is represented, as somebody liberated his monogrammed handkerchief and whiskey glasses, table napkins, and Eva Braun and Heinrich Himmler’s calling cards. “This is my favorite room, the medal groupings from famous Minnesota veterans,” Doug says.  Prominent is General John Vessey Jr. , former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Reagan.  More of General Vessey’s uniforms fill a row of lockers in the storage area. Weapons of all types in another room range from an 1808 flintlock musket to many types of American, Russian, Polish and Czech machine guns.  A Japanese paratrooper rifle has an American soldier’s initials neatly carved on the side.  “We were a little disheartened to see somebody’s initial on a Type 2 Japanese rifle, but we talked through it and decided it was a part of history.” A collection of vintage vehicles, including artillery pieces, helicopters and tanks, keeps growing on the museum grounds and in the former barracks.  The jumbo Sherman tank, with its extra welded-on armor and large turret, is very rare.  “They didn’t make a whole lot of them. They found this one being used as a target on a firing range and rescued it,” Doug says.  The same type of chopper that evacuated the wounded in the hit TV show M*A*S*H , a rusty and rare WW I German artillery piece, and an early Huey join the display. Former barracks hold a jeep display, a captured Japanese .75mm field gun, and a World War I caisson, probably pulled by horses, which carried shells. “We’re a very family friendly museum,” Doug says, pointing out the helmets and uniforms that kids can try on and the vehicles that they can crawl on and peer into.  He notes that the museum relies heavily on donations. Authors and historians frequently use the extensive library by appointment. When Doug goes home, his hobby follows him.  He has learned a fact that most collectors know: “The problem with collecting anything is if you collect one item, you need to go on and collect another.” Looking over his vast assortment of militaria, he says, “Patches are my downfall.  After I collect them, I think I need a uniform to put them on, and after I get the uniform I think I need all the accessories to go on it.  Pretty soon I might have an interest in finding about the vet who wore the uniform, and the next thing you know, you have a Jeep parked in your garage.” Thompson’s collection represents the U.S. and Britain in World Wars I and II and the Viet Nam conflict, along with the occasional German and Japanese item. It includes such diverse things as pins, buttons, posters, magazines, flak armor, a radio head set, tobacco items, soap, shaving cream, and that Jeep, a fully-restored 1942 model. A matchbook has matches shaped like bombs which the user could strike on Hitler’s backside.  Demonstrating a captured Luftwaffe utensil set, he says, “GIs liked the German utensils because they were better than theirs.”  He even has a flak jacket with the name “Thompson” stenciled on it, but he has no idea who his namesake was. His patches represent hundreds of different units.   Three of them, depicting respectively a buffalo, a French helmet, and a Pilgrim, belonged to black units which were strictly segregated during most of World War II. “They were often relegated to menial labor and truck driving. But when the Battle of the Bulge happened, the US Infantry Division was devoid of manpower, so they started filtering some black troops into combat units and found they were tremendous fighters, so that was one of the experiences that led the army to desegregate.” Another patch shaped like an arrowhead and bearing a Viking ship belonged to a highly-specialized commando unit made up mostly of Norwegian-speaking Minnesotans and North Dakotans who were sent to help liberate Norway. A patch with four ivy leaves represents the Fourth Infantry Division whose original divisional commander was named Ivey. The fact that IV is the Roman numeral for four adds additional wordplay. “What hits me most about collecting this stuff is being able to hold history in your hand,” he said.   Most special to him are his father’s medals. “I wouldn’t call them expensive, but they’re priceless to me, and I want to pass them down to my children. Every serviceman has medals, and their value to their family far exceeds their value to a collector.” Doug and his wife, Peggy, sell pre-paid legal plans and identity theft insurance.  They have four children.  Peggy doesn’t mind Doug spending more time at the museum. “She knows how much I love military history, so she encourages it.” Doug may eventually branch into collecting items from the latest Middle East conflicts.  But, he says, “Right now, there’s so much material (from WWI /WWII era) that I could collect for a lifetime and never exhaust the possibilities.” The Minnesota Military Museum is located at 15000 Hwy. 115, Little Falls. It is open daily, 10-5 May through September, and Thursday and Friday, 9–4, October through April.  Call 320-632-7374 for more details.

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