POWNAL -- Beyond its pastel hallways, and beside the forgotten posters admonishing children to wash their hands, the walls of the neglected Oak Hill School are lined with rounds and rounds of ammunition.
But this soldierly former day-care center is no impenetrable fortress; in fact, its roof barely keeps out the rain these days.
"Once you've taken on the Wehrmacht (German army), no one is going to convince you that you are inferior."
-- Bruce Bird, Museum planner.
Bruce Bird, the man in the corner polishing the imposing set of anti-aircraft shells, is the would-be curator of America's first museum dedicated exclusively to the military history of black Americans in World War II.
Despite the need for a few repairs, Bird's museum, which he referred to alternately as a "dream" and "a retirement project," seems to be well on its way. Bird can be found working diligently most mornings at the schoolhouse.
He was able to lease the building after he presented a proposal last year to town and school officials. The town can rent out the structure for $1 in rent for two years at a time, as long as it is for an educational use.
Bird has since moved in upstairs and is in the process of selling his residence to help fund his museum.
An avid collector of World War II-era paraphernalia, Bird's vast collection of artillery shells and models of tanks and warships will make up the bulk of the museum's display.
An outer room will be dedicated to black naval units, which Bird said were primarily responsible for torpedo maintenance, as well as fighter pilots such as the famed "Tuskegee Airmen," named for the Tuskegee (Ala.) Army Air Field where they trained. They also were known as "Red Tails" for the iconic manner in which they painted their planes.
An inner room will be dedicated to the "ground-pounders" artillery and tank units such as the 761st Tank Battalion, a black unit that was in combat for 183 consecutive days, the most of any in Europe, and saw action in many notable battles, including the Battle of the Bulge.
Bird said the service of blacks in World War II represented not just a significant transition in American military history, but in American history in general as an important precursor to the civil rights movement.
"Once you've taken on the Wehrmacht (German army), no one is going to convince you that you are inferior," said Bird. He described the racist climate of a disproportionately Southern-based military that was threatened by the potential success of black units and that sought to keep them from action.
Many black units were relegated to maintenance duty and to work as stevedores. Bird credited Gen. George S. Patton with calling the 761st Tank Battalion into action in 1944, but said it was only natural as the situation of the war progressed. He said the distinguished manner with which units such as Tuskegee 's 99th Fighter Squadron and the 761st served were critical to Truman's 1948 decision to desegregate the military, which led to a number of important changes, including white enlisted men serving under black officers.
Although Bird is not a trained historian -- he still works second shift at Vishay Transistor in Bennington, a job he hopes to retire from once his museum gets off the ground -- he is a martially minded dilettante. Possessed of an encyclopedic recall of dates and battalion names, he has lectured for the Vermont Council on the Humanities, a practice he hopes to resume in the future. He is working on two books, one a reference text on collecting artillery shells and the other a novel that examines what might have happened had the Germans beaten us in the race for the atomic bomb.
This will not be his first curatorial endeavor either. Bird worked for more than two years as curator of the Vermont Militia Museum before budget cuts forced him from that job. He also served in an internship at the Navy Museum in Washington, D.C., while in college.
Surprisingly, Bird said the genesis of his museum was women's tennis, of which he also is an enthusiast.
Inspired by Venus
Watching Venus Williams on television one day, he began to wonder if she had any relatives who had served in World War II. While researching that, he discovered that no such museum dedicated solely to black World War II history existed -- although there are similar exhibits and sections at larger museums, as well as a museum dedicated specifically to the Tuskegee Airmen.
"Someone ought to do something about this," Bird recalled saying at the time. "And when you say something like that, you usually end up as the one to do it."
Bird already has state nonprofit status and is now working to gain similar federal recognition. While he has someone "looking into funding," he said he is committed to his museum and prepared for the worst. He said he has calculated his budget so that his museum will still be feasible even if he has to rely on Social Security benefits.
Nonetheless, he hopes some day that his museum will be endowed to the point where he can earn enough as its curator to devote himself to its maintenance and operations full time. Bird is shooting for a grand opening spring of 2006. He said he works mostly late mornings and can use all the volunteer help he can get.
Interested parties can contact Bruce Bird at (203) 348-6810 or click here.
Bruce Bird is available to travel up to 75 miles and lecture about the museum for a fee of $275.
We are now a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.