Pieces of War

Pieces of War

Despite a camouflage paint job, the West Haven Veterans Museum & Learning Center (map) is easy to spot. Set up in 2010 by a team of volunteers, benefactors and the government of West Haven, its purpose is to commemorate the military veterans of the Greater New Haven area and the wars they fought.

Curator Ed Kasey gave me a tour. We started in a room filled with women’s military uniforms, including that of West Haven’s own Beatrice Stevenson Latham. “She was in the OSS during World War II,” Kasey said, referring to the Office of Strategic Services, the organization that preceded the CIA. “She spoke French, and she communicated with French resistance fighters.”

Near the women’s exhibit, an enormous hall chronicles other local contributions to American military history. Kasey told me the greatest point of focus here is the 102nd Infantry Regiment, New Haven’s hometown unit, whose story traces back to early colonial times and through the American Revolution. “Revolutionary War items are really hard to get,” Kasey noted. “We have some, but it’s an area we’d like to improve upon.”

Objects dating to the Civil War, however, are well-represented. Kasey is particularly proud of a Union coat worn by an enlisted soldier, telling me they’re rare to find compared to the coats of wealthier officers. “When these people came home from their service,” he says, “they wore their uniforms to work out into the fields, in the factories, because that’s all they had.”

For many of the items on display, Kasey attributed their preservation to a network of veterans’ associations that once dotted the country, like Grand Army of the Republic halls where former Union soldiers would gather to talk about their experiences and display the memorabilia they’d kept. For example, a Civil War drum that once belonged to Charlie Douglas, New Haven’s last living veteran of that conflict, had been kept in a GAR hall well before it made its way to the museum.

But the museum’s artifacts come from all kinds of places. According to Kasey, people frequently call to offer donations of wartime relics, and the museum also has connections with antique “pickers,” who keep their eyes peeled for various items the museum wants. A large amount of the museum’s holdings were previously collected and displayed in the Goffe Street Armory, the former home of New Haven’s branch of the National Guard and the museum’s unofficial birthplace.

It began when Korean War veteran Frank Carrano, stationed at the armory in the 1980s, decided to supplement and organize the collection that had been growing there. When the complex was slated for repurposing during the DeStefano administration, its displays were stored away, until the local DeGrand family stepped forward in 2010, offering the current site to the city of West Haven on the condition that it become a military museum.

An entire vintage room—dark wood paneling, light fixtures and all—was transplanted from the Armory to the new museum, creating a stately environment for a display on 19th-century conflicts. One especially interesting item is the knapsack of Antonio Dardelle, one of the Civil War’s few known Chinese-American combatants. Dardelle was raised in Connecticut, having been adopted in Guangdong, China, by a sea captain and his wife.

Despite the vast number of exhibits and artifacts, the museum often felt as neat and organized as a barracks before inspection. A French World War I gun dominated the middle of one aisle, surrounded by rusted helmets from the conflict. Some were hand-painted with an insignia of the 102nd Regiment: a brown and green tree against a field of white, representing the Charter Oak. In a glass case devoted to World War II rested a number of Nazi and Japanese rising sun flags, which still induce chills. “A lot of our soldiers brought these things back as souvenirs,” Kasey said. A replica shelter from the Korean War stands in one corner, near the lavishly decorated wing of a Japanese plane shot down by soldiers from Branford.

Kasey, who has been curator of the museum for three years, is a retired teacher and “closet historian,” he said, smiling, though it’s safe to say the secret’s out. “We’re all just volunteers,” he said about himself and the others behind the museum. “We do it just to keep the memory of the soldiers alive.”

West Haven Veterans Museum & Learning Center
30 Hood Terrace, West Haven (map)
Thurs-Sat 10am-2pm (closed this Sat, 5/25)
(203) 934-1111

Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank. This story was originally published on September 6, 2017.

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