Military History in Central Florida
By Jon Wilson
To absorb a hint of what American warriors have experienced from World War I on, a visit to the interactive Armed Forces History Museum in Largo is invaluable.
Visitors can hunker in a Great War trench while machine guns rattle, airplanes buzz and battle smoke wafts past.
World War II’s D-Day on Utah Beach comes to life with a barb-wired, shell-littered section of sand, the sound of gunfire and recorded shouts of “Go, go, go!” and “Get your head down!”
Two uniformed North Vietnamese soldiers stand in a jungle trail’s shadows, startling visitors while that era’s haunting sound – the whop-whop-whop of a helicopter – hangs overhead.
Voted the Tampa Bay area’s no. 1 museum in 2012, the 50,000-square-foot center is among central Florida’s varied history venues. Others include the Corporal Larry E. Smedley National Vietnam War Museum in Orlando and the Dade Battlefield State Park in Bushnell.
A half-hour’s drive north from the Largo museum is the National Armed Services and Law Enforcement Museum in Dunedin.
On exhibit in the Largo Armed Forces Museum are colorful uniforms and an array of classic weapons — the M1, M14 and M16 rifles, Tommy guns and bazookas, to name a few. Vehicles both inside and out include the Sherman tank, the Marine Corps’ Stuart light tank, armed scout cars, and amphibious assault machines. A Russian MIG and American missiles greet visitors in the parking lot.
Both a primer on an aspect of American history and a detailed look at the accoutrements of American arms, the exhibits should not be taken as a glorification of war. A visitor cannot help but be reminded of the devastation combat’s instruments bring. There are land mines the size of cake plates and the infamous “Bouncing Betty,” a terrifying bomb that when stepped on leaps from the ground and explodes at waist level. Dozens of grenades, those of both America and America’s enemies, declare that death is but a lob away.
A sign in the museum reinforces the idea that the exhibits are not to be taken as representing a political statement. Education is their primary mission. As such, there are entire rooms dedicated to such events as the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that began United States involvement in World War II. Much of it shows in detail the Japanese attacking force, including an exact scale model of a section of the Akagi, the flagship aircraft carrier. Another room is devoted to the WWII Normandy invasion. It includes a replica of St. Mere Eglise, the French village where U.S paratroopers landed.
But there also is a lighter side. There is a replica of the famous “Rosie’s Bar,” a favorite of American Korean War soldiers that was sometimes featured in television’s M.A.S.H.
At least two hours should be allowed for a visit to this Smithsonian-caliber niche museum. And like some of its nationally recognized brethren, it is worth a repeat visit to absorb all there is to see and experience.
In Orlando, the Corporal Larry E. Smedley National Vietnam War Museum is another extraordinary center. Named for a former Orlando Colonial High student who died in Vietnam as an 18-year-old Marine and won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the museum features hundreds of artifacts and hands-on opportunities.
In Bushnell, the Dade Battlefield offers a yearly reenactment of the opening clash of the Second Seminole War, 135-1842. A visitor center provides information, displays and a video about the battle.
If you go…
Armed Forces History Museum
2050 34th Way N, Largo
Corporal Larry E. Smedley National Vietnam War Museum
3400 N Tanner Road, Orlando
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park>
7200 County Road 603, Bushnell
National Armed Services and Law Enforcement Museum
500 Douglas Ave., Dunedin
For more information about Florida’s military history, visit vivaflorida.org/Explore/Victory-Florida