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Pennsylvanians-At-Arms: The Pennsylvania Military Museum

By Rod Snyder
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXV, Number 2 - Spring 1999

The story of the great battleship USS Pennsylvania, is told at the Pennsylvania Military Museum, whose collection includes the ship's bell.From provincial militia units that predate the American Revolution to this very day, Pennsylvanians have mustered their courage and taken up arms to defend their homes, defeat tyranny abroad, and champion the freedom of people at home and throughout the world. By accepting their call to duty, Pennsylvania's brave citizen-soldiers have built a proud military tradition that, ironically, grew strong in a colony steeped in Quaker pacifism. Located in the tranquil, historic village of Boalsburg, Centre County, several miles east of The Pennsylvania State University at State College, the exhilaration of battlefield victories and the grim realities of war are juxtaposed at the Pennsylvania Military Museum.

The museum, opened in 1968 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), is situated on sixty-seven acres where Colonel Theodore Davis Boal (1867–1938) in 1916 originally trained his troops—the Pennsylvania National Guard's first mounted machine gun troop—combining then-new machine gun weaponry with the time-tested tactics of cavalry (see “The Boals of Boalsburg: Two Hundred Years of a Pennsylvania Heritage” by Christopher Lee, Pennsylvania Heritage, Fall 1989). Scion of a wealthy family with far-flung international connections, he raised and equipped—with private funds—ninety volunteers from Centre, Clearfield, and Mifflin Counties to form the Machine Gun Troop, First Pennsylvania Cavalry. The unit, assigned to the legendary 28th Infantry Division, the Commonwealth's principal National Guard unit, saw action in France during World War I. Colonel Boal continued to hold troop reunions and war memorial dedications on his property, which he eventually deeded to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The 28th Division Shrine, honoring the Commonwealth's veterans of both World Wars, is a poignant reminder of the human price paid in the quest for peace.

The Revolutionary War cannon, the Ambusher.Today, museum visitors stroll the grounds of what was once Camp Boal, enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Nittany Valley and Tussey Mountain, cross a shallow brook, and view the limestone memorial walls dedicated to Pennsylvanians who died while serving in World War I and World War II. While the World War I memorial contains the names of selected officers of the 28th Division who died in battle, the World War II wall, dedicated in September 1997, contains all the names of the Keystone Division's enlisted and officer personnel who perished. Memorials honoring other Pennsylvania units, some dating to the Revolutionary War, are located throughout the park grounds. Visitors are encouraged to pay close attention to the layout of the World War I memorials punctuating the extensive grounds. These monuments are placed at points that correspond to the units' relative locations in France during the bitter and bloody battle for the Vesle River in August and September 1918. Although the memorials lend an appropriate degree of somberness to the grounds, there is still plenty of open space for visitors to hold a pleasant picnic.

Pennsylvanians-At-Arms“This place has been viewed as a community park and has been used by the public since it’s been here-since the thirties-and we’re going to encourage that tradition,” says William Leech, the museum’s administrator since 1990. “We manage sixty-seven acres, with picnic areas, activity fields, unpaved trails, and almost three-quarters of a mile of paved trails. In reality, we have three distinct missions: maintaining the 28th Division Shrine, operating a museum honoring all Pennsylvania veterans, and running the park.”

The Pennsylvania Military Museum offers a balance group of exhibits featuring an eclectic mix of military weaponry. Highlights include a colonial era cannon donated to the American cause by the Marquis de Lafayette to a horse-drawn, Spanish-American War Studebaker ambulance, and World War II jeeps. The Museum’s Hall of Weapons exhibits an impressive display of small-caliber machine guns that detail the development of automatic weapons from the Gatling gun to present-day weapons. More than merely a chronological collection of military hardware, the museum tells the human story behind the military developments. For instance, the Gatling gun was, ironically, developed in 1862 by physician Richard Jordan Gatling, who was horrified by the number of Civil War casualties brought about by disease. Gatling had hoped to reduce the number of disease casualties by developing a rotating, multi-barreled weapon that would decrease the number of soldiers needed to wage battle. Exhibits make good use of personal items from soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, providing a glimpse of the importance of a photograph or a letter to someone thousands of miles away from home and contemplating imminent death. While the tradition of the museum has emphasized ground troops, Leech says there has been a concerted effort to ensure that all armed services are well represented.

The Gatling gun.“My background is Army,” Leech says. “I spent almost five years in the Army, so I need to temper that. Many of the members of the Friends of the Pennsylvania Military Museum, our dedicated volunteer support group, are Navy and Marine Corps veterans, and that help a lot when we are planning an exhibit or a special event. It’s important that we represent all our armed services.”

Visitors not only get a taste of Navy and Air Force life; exhibits take them from command headquarters, where general officers determine theatre operations, to the gritty (and grisly) details of the life of foot soldiers in muddy fields and rice paddies. Visitors walk through a life-sized re-creation that allows them to relive the dark danger of World War I trench warfare. A trench fortified with sandbags shows the cramped living conditions, while recorded sounds of gunfire and soldier’s voices rain down from loudspeakers above. The trench is kept in darkness, punctuated by flashes of light and the sound of explosives, as vintage vehicles, including an ambulance and a tank, stand nearby to lend an eerie sense of reality.

The Marlin .30 caliber machine gun.
It is this mix of militaria with the stories of individuals—far from home, frightened but doing their duty—which makes the exhibits come alive for visitors. Throughout the museum is a telling collection of actual wartime photographs of soldiers in combat or training for combat. One soldier's story is the World War II saga of Lewistown, Mifflin County, native Richard Van Dyke, born January 26, 1926, who ran away from home to enlist in the U.S. Army. Van Dyke trained as a medic and initially assigned to a rear based hospital, requested a transfer to the front line to help wounded soldiers. In September 1944, Van Dyke, only eighteen years old, was part of the 80th Division operation to cross the Moselle River when he was shot and killed by a German sniper near the village of St. Genevieve. He was buried in a military cemetery in France. This story of youth, adventure, bravery, and death resonates with visitors because it is similar to ones recounted in many Pennsylvania communities that have seen their young men and women go off to war. The museum exhibit that tells Richard Van Dyke's story includes the everyday, personal items he carried at his death—his dog tags, some French currency, and his ID card—along with the Purple Heart medal he was awarded and the official telegram to his mother telling of his death. The exhibit contains a Gold Star flag that families of deceased servicemen hung in their windows during the war. A gold star on the flag signifies the death of a family member; the Van Dyke flag also has a blue star representing Richard's brother, Bill, who served in the Quartermaster Corps in England and survived the war.

A close-up of the Gatling gun.The Pennsylvania Military Museum's strength is in chronicling the two World Wars, not surprising considering its roots in the 28th Division. However, all conflicts in which Pennsylvanians have fought, including Desert Storm, are touched on. Adjacent to the World War I trench are displays of equipment used by American soldiers who participated in the liberation of Kuwait and gear captured from Iraqi forces. A memorial exhibit remembers thirteen Pennsylvanians from the Greensburg, Westmoreland County, area, members of the 14th Quartermaster Detachment, who were killed in an Iraqi SCUD missile attack on February 25, 1991, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Tucked in its own area of the museum is a tribute to Foster J. Sayers, a U.S. Army Private First Class serving with Company L, 357th Infantry Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division. In November 1944, Sayers' unit was carrying out an attack on a strong contingent of hostile forces that were heavily entrenched on a hill near Thionville, France. Sayers was able to get within twenty yards of the enemy with his machine gun when he realized his comrades would be crossing an open area of fire in order to flank the enemy position. Sayers picked up his machine gun and charged through machine gun and rifle fire to the edge of the enemy stronghold where he killed twelve German soldiers with devastating close-range fire. Private Sayers then took up a position behind a log and further engaged the enemy in order to distract them while his unit advanced to the crest of the hill.

The Military Museum's World War I trench diorama.“He was killed in the very heavy concentration of return fire; but his assault enabled his company to sweep the hill with a minimum number of casualties, killing or capturing every enemy soldier on it,” reads the citation accompanying his Medal of Honor. “Pfc. Sayers' indomitable fighting spirit, aggressiveness, and supreme devotion to duty live on as an example of the highest traditions of the military service.” The Sayers family donated the Congressional Medal of Honor to the PHMC for placement at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in a ceremony during which Governor Tom Ridge , a veteran himself, accepted it on behalf of the Commonwealth. Foster J. Sayers' Medal of Honor has become the centerpiece of one of the museum's most moving installations honoring Pennsylvanians killed in action. In addition to the Congressional Medal of Honor, the exhibit includes Sayers' citation from President Harry S. Truman, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, dog tags, and unit badges including a crest, bearing the motto Siempre Alerta, or “Always on Alert.”

In an area near the Sayers' Congressional Medal of Honor exhibit, the museum tells the story of one of the great battleships of this century, the USS Pennsylvania. She was commissioned in June 1916, serving the United States in both World Wars and in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. At the conclusion of World War I, she escorted President Woodrow Wilson across the Atlantic Ocean to France to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war and to plan the League of Nations . Twenty-two years later, she was called into action for World War II. She was in dry dock at Pearl Harbor , Hawaii , during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 , and was one of the first ships to provide return fire against the attacking Japanese torpedo planes and bombers. The Pennsylvania escaped significant damage and returned to sea in the Pacific Theater, fighting in the Marianas and the Leyte Gulf operations. She received eight battle stars for her service in World War II. After the war, the USS Pennsylvania was used as part of the United States ' testing of nuclear capabilities near Bikini Atoll. Because of nuclear contamination, the USS Pennsylvania was decommissioned in February 1948 and deliberately sunk.

Four U.S. Naval Vessels have borne the Commonwealth's name. In addition to the battleship Pennsylvania (BB38), they have included the first USS Pennsylvania, a ship of the line constructed at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and commissioned in 1837. In 1901, Armored Cruiser 4 took the name Pennsylvania, only to be changed to Pittsburgh to make way for the battleship Pennsylvania. Today's namesake, the USS Pennsylvania (SSBN735), is a ballistic missile submarine home ported at the Naval Submarine Base, Kings Bay, Georgia .

In addition to military exploits, Pennsylvania's industrial ingenuity is highlighted by the museum's tribute to the venerable Jeep. The Bantam Car Company of Butler, thirty miles north of Pittsburgh, designed and manufactured the original Jeep (known in military parlance as “GP” for “general purpose”) Scout car for the United States armed forces. The small company manufactured more than twenty-six hundred Jeeps before the military—requiring much larger production capacity—awarded contracts to Ford Motor Company and the Willys Overland Company. The basic Jeep design developed in Pennsylvania was maintained through a production run of more than six hundred thousand vehicles.

An annual event by the 28th Division honoring Pennsylvanians in the military.Young or old, veteran or not, visitors to the Pennsylvania Military Museum will discover much about Pennsylvania 's citizen-soldiers and the conflicts in which they participated. They will learn about the generations of men and women whose selflessness and courage helped return peace to the land, at home and abroad. They will appreciate the sacrifices and hardships endured by so many over the course of more than two centuries. And they will better understand the real meaning of the words patriot and hero and valor, words seldom heard today.

The Pennsylvania Military Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5:00 p.m., but hours change seasonally, so check the Web site at pamilmuseum.org. There is an admission fee. Persons with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone or write the museum in advance of their visit to discuss their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the PA Relay Center at 1-800-654-5984.

The Bantam jeep became famous as a durable reconnaissance military vehicle.For more information, write: Pennsylvania Military Museum, PO Box 160A, Boalsburg, PA 16827; or telephone 814-466-6263.

Boalsburg—and surrounding Centre County—is a perfect destination for a one-day or weekend getaway. Boalsburg is a charming village that proclaims itself as the "Birthplace of Memorial Day," and visitors will want to discover for themselves its quaint streets and unusual shops. The Boal Mansion Museum and Columbus Chapel , once the residence of Colonel Theodore Davis Boal, contains extensive collections of the aristocratic Boal family's keepsakes and heirlooms, many of which possess international significance. Nine generations of the Boals maintained the house, and each left behind a contribution to the legacy.

The family's patriarch, David Boal, settled in the area in 1789 and what was his log cabin is now the kitchen of the mansion. Generations of Boals achieved prominence in the region—as well as abroad. Born in Ireland, but the first member of the family to grow up in America, George Boal (1796–1867) was intensely interested in education and in 1855 served as president of the Centre County Agricultural Society, which proposed the founding of an agricultural high school in the county. Four years later the Farmer's High School opened. The school is now The Pennsylvania State University.

The famous chapel, described by the Wall Street Journal as "a strong tangible link to Columbus in the New World," was brought to America by Theodore D. Boal in 1909. Originally part of the Columbus family castle in Spain , the chapel contains an exceptional collection of Baroque and Renaissance works of art spanning the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries; family archives dating from 1453 to 1908; and ancient religious relics.

Hitched to two horses, the 1909 U.S. Studebaker Wagon served as a military ambulance.Centre County, organized in 1800 and so named for its geographical location in the center of the Commonwealth, is probably best known for University Park, the home of The Pennsylvania State University and the Nittany Lions. The university campus is also home to the Palmer Museum of Art, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Charles W. Moore, which features changing exhibitions and a permanent collection of both historical and contemporary works of art. Also located on the State College campus is the Pattee Library, which houses the personal library of Pennsylvania native and best-selling writer John O'Hara (1905-1970). The library was removed intact from his home after his death and installed as it appeared during his lifetime.

In the tranquil Centre County village of Boalsburg, the Pennsylvania Military Museum serves as a repository for objects - such as this recruitment poster - that recount America's many calls to arms and the part played by Pennsylvania's citizen-soldiers.


The county seat, Bellefonte, is known as the home of Pennsylvania's governors because William Bigler, Andrew Gregg Curtin, James A. Beaver, and Daniel H. Hastings resided in the community (see Pennsylvania Governors' Biographies.) Bellefonte is well known for its striking examples of Victorian era architecture and distinctive nineteenth-century building styles. Other historic villages are Lemont, Aaronsburg, and Centre Hall.

For more information about museums, historic sites, and related attractions, write: Centre County Convention and Visitor Bureau, 800 E. Park Ave, State College, PA 16803; telephone 814-231-1400 or toll-free 1-800-358-5466; or visit its web site at www.centralpacvb.org .

Rod Snyder of Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County was electronic publications editor for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. He is a U.S. Naval Reserve journalist and a former staff writer for The Associated Press.

The author and editor wish to thank William Leech, Joseph Horvath, and Sherry Felske of the Pennsylvania Military Museum for their assistance during the preparation of this article.

For Further Reading

Baker, Chester E. Doughboy's Diary. Shippensburg, Pa.: Burd Street Press, 1998.

Berebitsky, William. A Very Long Weekend: The Army National Guard in Korea, 1950-1953. Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane Publishing Company, 1996.

Clarke, William Packer. Official History of the Militia and the National Guard of the State of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Charles J. Hendler, 1909.

Ent, Uzal W. The First Century: A History of the 28th Infantry Division. Harrisburg: 28th Infantry Division, 1979.

Hackenburg, Randy W. Pennsylvania in the War with Mexico. Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane Publishing Company, 1992.

Mahon , John K. History of the Militia and the National Guard. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983.

Mulholland, St. Clair A. The Story of the 116th Regiment: Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion. New York: Fordham University Press, 1996.

Newland, Samuel J. The Pennsylvania Militia: The Early Years, 1669-1792. Annville: Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, 1997.

Sauers, Richard A. Advance the Colors: Pennsylvania Civil War Battle Flags. Harrisburg: Capitol Preservation Committee, 1987.

Trussell, Jr. John B.B. The Pennsylvania Line: Regimental Organization and Operations, 1775-1783. Harrisburg : Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1993.