“Guess how much tuition cost when I went to college” says 87-year-old Bob Picher. “You’ll never get it!” Picher takes a bite of his sandwich, inviting estimates from the three men who sit with him around the lunch table at the Vermont Veterans Militia Museum and Library at Camp Johnson.
“$342,” offers John Schneck, a fellow vet and museum volunteer.
The men have heard this story several times, but that doesn’t make the dollar figure — Schneck is correct — any less astonishing.
College tuition is not the only huge difference between young people today and Picher’s generation; their life experiences are, too. Like his fellow museum volunteers, Picher enrolled in the U.S. Army before earning his college degree and, by the time he completed his studies at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., he was a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War.
This disconnect may be one reason the Colchester museum draws only a small number of college students, despite being located less than 500 yards from the main campus of St. Michael’s College.
“There aren’t many of you, frankly,” notes Ozzie La Mothe, who, like Picher, is a World War II and Korea veteran. “If I was a 20-year-old, I might have other interests, too.”
But plenty of young locals, including St. Mike’s students, do have an interest in history. And the vets sitting around the museum’s lunch table have a lot of history to share. Their combined service spans three wars and adds up to nearly 100 years.
Supplementing this firsthand experience is a vast array of memorabilia inside the museum. Several pieces date back to the early 1800s, and the museum’s tiny library holds a collection of archives including rosters of every Vermonter who has fought, starting with the Revolutionary War. An accompanying set of cards lists the soldiers who were killed and the cemeteries they’re buried in. This collection, explains volunteer John Danley, a Vietnam-era veteran, is the only one of its kind in the state.
Nevertheless, few locals seem to know the military museum exists, though it’s been there for 40 years. The museum moved about 400 yards from its previous location in the 1980s, museum president Bernie Pfenning explains. He hopes to drum up interest in the place by distributing brochures at Vermont interstate rest areas. And though the pale-blue building is visible from Route 15, the men agree that prominent signs should be installed by the road.
At least the admission is enticing: There isn’t one. The museum subsists entirely on donations. Access is easy, too. Though located at Camp Johnson, the place is open to the public and requires no identification from visitors.
If the Veterans Militia Museum is generally underappreciated, vets Picher, La Mothe, Schneck and Danley look forward to their weekly visits. All four are on hand from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Thursday, ready to share their wisdom and stories, none of which is in short supply.
La Mothe credits Schneck and Danley with taking care of the museum’s administrative aspects. The two are good with computers and capable of sending emails.
“Bob and I say the only computer we have is between our ears,” La Mothe, 87, says with a laugh. “But I’d say it’s working quite well.”
Indeed, La Mothe’s recollection of dates, numbers, names and weaponry is rivaled only by Picher’s. The Winooski natives met in grammar school 80 years ago. And despite their advanced years, the two seem not to be slowing down much. Picher is involved with the Winooski Historical Society and, if genes are any indication, he’ll continue offering his services at the military museum for years to come. His sister, whom he refers to as “only 96,” is a nun who works full time as the archivist at a convent in Québec. Picher describes her ability to remember the dimensions, frame size and approximate value of every picture the convent acquires.
“And she puts all that in the computer,” he adds. “Google? I’ve never used Google once in my life!”
Like his sister, Picher is an archivist in his own right. He remembers stories from his strict Catholic school days and his two tours of duty overseas as though they happened yesterday.
Picher vividly recalls being fired upon in Germany during World War II and diving for cover in the 6-inch-deep tire tracks left by heavy tanks, frantically digging deeper with the spoon from his mess kit.
These memories are paired with photos from Picher’s WWII album, which he references often. His favorite photo shows an American flag flying high above his company’s camp in Beerheide, Germany.
Immediately after the war ended in 1945, and while still stationed overseas, Picher collected red, white and blue cloth to have an American flag made. The Germans, many of whom were Nazi sympathizers, were bitter toward the victorious American soldiers, he says. But, determined to display his country’s pride, Picher presented a local tailor with his hodgepodge of materials and asked him to sew an American flag.
“I made it very clear, especially with the aid of my weapon,” Picher recalls. “I didn’t point it at him, but I moved it a little bit so he knew what I meant.”
Picher’s scare tactics must have worked, because the flag was ready within days. It flew above his company area, hoisted high for all to see. But the flag didn’t get all the glory it deserved. Shortly thereafter, an article ran in the Stars and Stripes newspaper describing the first American flag to fly in Germany after World War II.
“Mine was finished two weeks before that,” Picher says. “I never wrote to the Stars and Stripes to make a correction, but mine was first, and I still have it. That’s my most highly treasured possession of World War II.”
La Mothe, too, cherishes his photos. In his wallet he keeps a photo of himself as an 18-year-old, fresh-faced Air Force cadet, along with several snapshots of his beautiful late wife, Barbara, and a worn photo of his 10 children gathered on the sofa at Christmastime.
La Mothe met Barbara between his two tours, he relates. She was his nurse at Fanny Allen Hospital, tending to an injury unrelated to the war.
Certain he was falling in love but not ready to get married, La Mothe reenlisted and began training, this time with the Army during the Korean War. On Thanksgiving weekend in 1950, La Mothe proposed. He and Barbara were married a month later.
She wrote to him every day that he was stationed in Korea, and it was through one of these letters that he found out his first son, Ben, had been born. The letter arrived three weeks after the postmark date.
“It was a fine day,” La Mothe recalls.
After he returned home, La Mothe worked full time for the Vermont National Guard while Barbara cared for their growing brood. “My wife was just superb,” he remembers. “She took care of everything. It’s been a wonderful life. Fifty-six years, 14 days we were married,” he continues. “Sounds like a long time, right? Not long enough.”
La Mothe lives alone now, and looks forward to his Thursday gig at the museum. Like his buddies, he’s happy to regale visitors with war stories.
While Picher saw combat in World War II, La Mothe had a close call of his own in Korea. He tells of digging a bunker 10 feet deep, sheltered by trees he had sawed to protect himself from enemy fire on May Day 1952.
“We spent three days in my bunker — me and all the friends I had! We had gathered some rations and ate out of cans. We took some direct hits right on top of my shelter; a little dirt came down between the logs. But all four of us survived.”
Unlike his older peers, John Schneck had always intended to go into the service. His father lost a hand in the Normandy invasion in 1944, and his wife’s uncle, Forrest, was part of the original Band of Brothers, a famous World War II unit whose story was made into a book and later an HBO miniseries.
“The Band of Brothers was essentially about a company of the 101st Airborne,” Schneck explains. “They had parachuted into France on D-Day and then into Holland, and were part of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne” in Belgium.
Uncle Forrest died two and a half years ago, Schneck says, but he continues to be inspired by the connection.
“[The Band of Brothers] just made a whole new revelation in terms of the sacrifice that the men had made during that time frame,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.
John Danley, too, was born into a family with strong military ties. His father was a World War II veteran, and his brother served in Vietnam. And though Danley did not serve overseas during the war, he witnessed much of the chaos that ensued in the 1960s, most notably the wave of civil disturbances that occurred in Cincinnati following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn.
“It was not a fun time to be in the Guard,” Danley says.
Like his peers, Danley is well informed about the history of the U.S. military. He and his fellow volunteers have worked to update various museum displays and overseen the restoration of a Civil War-era mural. Painted circa 1866, it depicts the famous Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia two years prior.
Other treasured items in the museum include an authentic Revolutionary War jacket and a real forty-and-eight railway car — meant to hold either 40 men or eight horses — that dates back to World War I. Forty-eight of the cars were gifted to the U.S. by France — one for each state, Schneck says. Without so much as a chair to sit on, let alone a toilet, Picher’s company traveled across Europe in a forty and eight during World War II.
“Life is full of stories,” Picher says. “The true ones are the best ones.”
The Vermont Veterans Militia Museum and Library is located just past the entrance of Camp Johnson in Colchester. Open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., or by appointment. vermontmilitarymuseum.com
A version of this story first appeared in the Defender, the student newspaper at St. Michael’s College. Managing editor Bethany Prendergast is graduating this month.