Jim Jones, 88, of Catlin has returned three times to Normandy, France, where the memories of that D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, are still vivid. “I’m a very lucky person,” he says, summing up his thoughts. Jones, who was 19, and others on his ship, the USS Harding, survived the assault, when Allied troops landed on a 50-mile stretch of French coastline to fight Nazi Germany. After that, troops marched across Europe to defeat Hitler.
Jones served in the Navy from 1943-46, serving as a gunner’s mate second class.
Through the years, he has collected items related to D-Day, and about a year ago, he donated the collection to the Vermilion County War Museum. Now, a special room is being renovated to showcase those items and to give people a chance to read records from World War II.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open the room is tentatively set for the afternoon of June 15, said
Jim Kouzmanoff, president of the museum. He expects to have more details later this week.
The special event also will give people a chance to see the remodeled and expanded museum. Displays have been rearranged and updated, artifacts have been added and the museum has received a good scrubbing. Several new weapons have been added from the Revolutionary, Civil, Spanish-American and Vietnam wars.
Jones is pleased with the special room for his collection.
Through him, the USS Harding alumni committee donated the ship’s records to the museum. Included are the maps used for the landing on Omaha Beach, as well as the complete ship logbook from its launch on June 28, 1942, until de-commissioning on Nov. 2, 1945.
“It will be kind of a memorial to the ship and a place where people can research D-Day,” Jones said. “People don’t know too much about it.”
D-Day is a general military term that refers to the launch of an operation, but, to the public, it’s always been associated with the WWII action.
Jones has always been interested in the invasion, beyond the fact that he was there.
“You don’t realize how much planning and thought went into it …” he recalled.
Jones operated a 20-millimeter gun on the USS Harding, which was one of five destroyers about a mile from shore. Then all five destroyers put their bows in the sand, he said, and waited for the Germans to shoot at troops.
Jones didn’t get off the ship. A boat was sent onto the beach with medics and to collect survivors and prisoners of war. He also saw the landing craft that Ernest Hemingway was traveling in; the author wrote an article about the invasion for Collier’s magazine. Jones plans to pull his memories of his Navy experiences into his book for his family.
After the war, he learned a trade as a bricklayer, then became a brick contractor and later a builder of custom houses; his last job was when he was 84.
The casual visitor might not notice the changes at the museum, but Kouzmanoff and other volunteers do.
“There is a lot of difference,” he said. “To someone who was here a year ago, it might not look like it.”
The 13,000-square-foot Carnegie building, which was built in 1903, still features stained glass windows and solid woodwork, making a stately tribute to the men and women who served.
“This place is a real asset to Danville,” Jones said.
The displays on the main level begin with a section devoted to the Revolutionary War, including the tombstone of soldier Jacob Gundy. Someone in Bismarck found it in his backyard.
Nearby is the Civil War section, which has been expanded to an entire wall, and is expected to grow, Kouzmanoff said. The World War I area also has received more items, and is outgrowing its space.
The Kenneth Bailey room features material pertaining to POW/MIA and recipients of the Medal of Honor.
The newest room opened in 2011, and is devoted to the Iraq, Desert Storm and Afghanistan veterans. Veterans are not allowed to bring back souvenirs, Kouzmanoff said, and so there are not as many items. New lights have been installed in that room.
The Vietnam War display area is being remodeled, and a display case has been added to the Korean War area. In that section, the rifle and knife collections have been identified and reorganized, and new lights installed.
Items representing World War II keep coming in, he said.
In the front area on the main level, the display case has been reorganized. Carbines from the Civil War have been added.
Also nearby is a restored 1935 radio, which was a wedding gift to his parents, Kouzmanoff said. His parents heard President Franklin Roosevelt declare war with Japan on it. There’s also a working WWII telephone switchboard that was used in the field.
On the lower level, the tile floor in the meeting room was stripped and every light fixture was removed and cleaned. Ceiling tiles were repainted and carpets professionally cleaned.
A uniform room has been added, mainly with WWII and later uniforms.
Miniature tanks in a display case have been identified and organized by Tory Owens of Champaign.
In addition, the scrapbook and photo area was redone, Kouzmanoff said, saying, “It was a mess.” That space also includes diaries and personal notes.
Kouzmanoff noted that the city of Danville takes care of the museum’s exterior, while the volunteers take care of the inside. A new roof was put on last summer.
He also noted that the improvements are due to an all-volunteer effort and volunteers are always needed.
The Vermilion County War Museum, 307 N. Vermilion St., is open from noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children 12 and younger, and free for children younger than 6. Its website is http://www.vcwm.org.