A young man’s quest to learn more about his family’s military service has spurred on a small museum featuring military items from World War I to the Afghanistan War.
Cranbury resident Adam MacMillan’s interest in the military grew at a young age as he started collecting military items and souvenirs from veterans, family members and family members of veterans.
“Learning more about my family, especially with the World War II items, I learned that so many people in my family served. I just want to honor that and keep that tradition alive,” he said. “No one will ever forget WWII, but those small little stories that are going to get lost are so important.”
MacMillan said his grandmother, who is still alive, would talk about her brothers in the service.
MacMillan’s collection is a mix of donated items and items he purchases from collectors. He received items from his dad, who was given items in his foundation work with veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It is a great honor to receive donated items from veterans. The medals and uniforms … what these vets held dear to them. The medals that they earned and fought for,” MacMillan said. “It just means a lot to have a family bring something and want me to have it to keep the history alive.”
MacMillan said when given items, he will “try to research their item as much as I can and give that information back to [the person donating the items].”
The small museum is neatly organized in the family’s home basement. He has military items from the 1800s to the Afghanistan War, mostly consisting of American items and some German WWII items.
The museum includes military uniforms worn from WWI, WWII, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War including packs and helmets, veteran’s medals and pins, postcards and photos from the various wars dating back to WWI and ammunition.
The museum also includes older military patches, bayonets, daggers, books, bibles and items brought back by veterans from the wars they served in.
During WWI, MacMillan said “a solider would have a shovel, blanket and half a tent, extra clothes, rations and food, socks and anything else they wanted to keep in the backpack. They had a mess pack and their bayonet.”
MacMillan noted for the WWI pack and helmet display in his collection, it took him two years to assemble all the pieces to represent what was worn accurately.
Also on display is the gear – helmet, bullet proof vest, and basic training fatigues – from Army Sgt. Rick Yarosh, a purple heart recipient, who was wounded in Iraq. Yarosh donated his items to MacMillan, which further sparked his collection.
At first, the WWII conflict was the main focus when MacMillan started his collection.
When he was a freshman at Princeton High School, that focus expanded as his passion grew. He said each Army and military service item he collected told a story.
“I understand better now at age 19 that some of these guys were my age when they were wounded,” he said, adding the donations are mesmerizing.
Once he started collecting, he got reference books, read and researched online and took in advice from other collectors, which helped guide him in the process of determining what was real when buying items from other collectors.
For MacMillan, it was harder in the beginning to collect, because he did not know what was out there. As his collection grew, it became easier for him to find what he wanted.
“It is important here in America to not forget the history,” he said.
MacMillan is proud of his family’s funeral flags on display. His grandfather’s flag is one of them on top of a long-lit case underneath the stairs to the basement.
In 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began, MacMillan realized he was really on to something – items that other museums/collectors might not have – when he started to fill his family’s basement.
Meeting with veterans/preserving memories.
MacMillan, a student at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, said hopes to use his collection to interview veterans to stimulate and preserve memories.
Through his collection he met WWII Veteran Bob Gibson, who was among the soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach and fought during the Battle of the Bulge on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
MacMillan first visited Gibson, 98, in April at his residence in Hampton. The young collector brought one of the WWII helmets he collected.
He said the helmet brought back a flood of memories for Gibson as he held the helmet.
In May, MacMillan traveled with Gibson to Normandy, France. They left after Memorial Day and joined other veterans through the Best Defense Foundation through June 8.
MacMillan said Gibson was hesitant at first to return back to place where memories are still raw. Eventually, Gibson made the decision to go and together he and MacMillan visited the Normandy American Cemetery. While there, they visited the grave of solider and purple heart recipient Carl B. Westerberg.
Items from his collection has sparked memories from a WWII veteran in Monroe Township. During his visit, MacMillian brought a WWII wool uniform jacket and hat.
The veteran from Monroe had not put the wool hat on in 75 years, he said.
“Once he started talking about [the hat], his wife said she had never heard about any of the stories he went on to tell that day,” MacMillan said. “It was cool to see how the hat sparked those memories such as his time on patrol.”
MacMillan said he hopes to use his collection to teach, make presentations and provide education initiatives to youth in addition to the interviews with the veterans to preserve their stories.
He also hopes people dive into their family’s history.
“There is always someone [who] has fought. I hope they dive into it and preserve it and they are able to pass that along to their kids or grandchildren,” he said.