Military History in South Florida
By Jon Wilson
A museum with thousands of artifacts from many of our nation’s wars, a Civil War-era fort with surprises and a museum billed as unique in honoring all the sea services highlight south Florida’s military tourism sites.
Punta Gorda - Military Heritage Museum
At Punta Gorda’s Military Heritage Museum, visitors can see about 50,000 artifacts and memorabilia from the Spanish-American War to the current conflicts in the Mideast.
They include uniforms such as the colorful dress Army blues of a command sergeant major and an unusual arm band worn by troops in Korea’s join security area at Panmunjom. On display are America’s weapons and many of those of our enemies.
Each artifact has a story behind it. For example, the museum has a rare (and controversial) front page from the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper in Hawaii. A headline at the page’s top warns that “Japanese May Strike Over Weekend.” The newspaper’s date: Nov. 30, 1941, just a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
One of the most compelling stories the museum recounts is that of Capt. Luis Chirichigno, held by the Viet Cong for 3½ years after his helicopter was shot down in 1969. At first, the Peruvian-born officer was reported as missing, then killed in action.
Chirichigno was captured and spent eight months shackled in a bamboo cage before being marched to the infamous Hanoi Hilton. There he survived until his release in early 1973. The museum has a replica of the “Tiger Cage” in which Chirichigno was held. The captain donated to the museum his prisoner’s uniform and the rubber-tire sandals he walked in en route to Hanoi.
“Anyone who spends time in this museum will walk away with a new respect for those who have given so much for our freedom,” says executive director Kim Lovejoy, a master sergeant in the Air Force retired reserve.
Key West - Fort Zachary Taylor
Key West’s Fort Zachary Taylor, offering more than history to visitors, sprawls on 54 acres. The bastion dates to Florida’s first year of statehood, 1845, when construction began. In 1850 it was named for President Zachary Taylor, “Old Rough ‘n’ Ready,” who died in office. But yellow fever, hurricanes and the project’s remote location slowed construction through the 1850s.
But it was ready for the Civil War. The federal government seized it and kept it throughout the conflict as a naval blockade headquarters. Besides the vigilant Yankee ships, Confederate blockade runners had to dodge the fort’s cannons, some of which had a three-mile range.
Since 1968, excavation has unearthed many guns and ammo from Civil War days and much more remains buried. The fort is considered to have the largest collection of Civil War artillery in the United States. Guided tours are offered daily at noon.
And there’s more: A beach billed as Key West’s best, a café, fishing and picnicking. Weeklong Civil War reenactments take place, and Halloween unveils a “haunted fort.” Other times of year, sites are available for weddings and parties.
Sebring - Military Sea Services Museum
Sebring’s Military Sea Services Museum is America’s only one honoring all the ocean-going arms: the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
A spinoff of a Navy veterans’ organization in Sebring, the museum opened in 1998 on the strength of donations and volunteers. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne badly damaged the building. It was re-done and today is said to be more impressive than the original.
A featured attraction is the USS Highland Room, honoring the World War II attack transport named for the county in which Sebring is situated. The ship participated in battles such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa and was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
When you go…
Military Heritage Museum
Fishermen's Village, 1200 West Retta Esplanade, Unit 48, Punta Gorda
Fort Zachary Taylor
At the end of Southard Street, Key West
Military Sea Services Museum
1402 Roseland Avenue, Sebring
For more information about Florida’s military history, visit vivaflorida.org/Explore/Victory-Florida