In Florida, I Locate A Museum Not in Guidebooks

Southwest Florida Military Museum and Library

Discovering the Southwest Florida Military Museum and Library was an incredible find on a recent trip. Located in Cape Coral, at 4820 Leonard Street, this museum defines off the beaten track: it’s not listed in guidebooks and is tucked away inside a former supermarket nearby auto repair shops and big box stores. But to walk inside the doors is to be transported back in time to see tens of thousands of artifacts from every military engagement since the American Revolution.

The museum is less than ten years old and is managed by local veterans and volunteers. The 34,000 square foot space is not completely given over to the museum and library, it also serves as a regional veterans center and meeting place. There’s a large space set aside for talks and lectures, and dining area (mess hall) that serves meals. When I was there, it had around 20 veterans and support staff present at work.

One of the best parts? The ticket price. As their sign says, “Freedom is not Free. However, admission to the museum is.”

The displays run the gamut from the 18th century to recent conflicts. Veterans, collectors, and families donate all of the items. The museum is approximately 60% devoted to World War II, while other conflicts split the other 40%.

M1918 trench knife

The area I was most interested was the Great War, since I wrote World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War. While modest in scope, the WWI displays had many interesting items to see. The first one I came across was a pair of vintage eyeglasses that had been with a passenger on the Lusitania, the Cunard liner sunk by German U-boat U20 in May 1915. The museum has a few fine specimens of Doughboy uniforms and equipment, including a Small Breath Respirator gas mask bag marked with the insignia of the 103rd Machine Gun Battalion 26th “Yankee” Division. A rare collar disc from Company F, 2nd Pioneer Infantry Regiment, on a service coat caught my eye, as did a M1918 trench knife, French canteen with blue enamel finish, and worn Signal Corps equipment.

There were several outstanding pieces on display that are incredibly rare. One was a set of matching fez and brassard, purple and red embroidery, with a rat design. This was from the National Order of Trench Rats, a vets group that started in Arrowhead Springs, California, after the war. The men were all patients at Public Health Service Hospital No. 54.

The collection included aviation items, weapons, and tools. In the center was a complete M1904 McClellan saddle, a standard military saddle used by the Army in the Punitive Expedition to Mexico and World War I. This saddle was rigged for field service with original U.S. saddlebags and rifle scabbard with Krag carbine tucked inside it. The only thing not included was the horse.

The WWI display was the first of the many areas with mannequins; there are almost 100 in the museum. Most have been customized to look period. The Doughboy, German soldier, aviator, and nurse were attired in vintage clothing.

The rest of the museum has scores of original items that anyone who enjoys military history will like to see. I lost count of how many Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, and other valor medals are on display. All are accompanied by detailed information about the men who earned the awards. In this area, the museum is quite strong. There are quite a few examples of medals and ribbons, along with autographs and photos.

The biggest part of the collection by far is devoted to WWII. The European and Pacific theaters are well represented, with all branches of service, enemy combatants, and scores of items that returning soldiers would have carried home as war souvenirs. There is a large amount of Nazi memorabilia and Lugers. I was surprised by how many autographs are included, from famous soldiers to local heroes.

Not to be missed are some of the more unusual–or “unexpected”–finds in the museum: A lifelike mannequin of President Kennedy sitting in the middle of a display about assassination conspiracies. This is next to mannequins of President Lincoln and U.S. Grant sitting together. There is also a collection of baseball memorabilia that would seem more at home in Cooperstown than a military museum. Kudos to the museum for having an extensive and quite large area devoted to women in uniform, at home and at war.

If you happen to be in the region, by all means try and visit the Southwest Florida Military Museum. There is no admission charge, but donations are accepted. It is located in Cape Coral, about 15 minutes from Fort Myers, an hour from Sarasota. Visit their website for more information.