01 September 2010

Red Bull Meets the Red Ball Express

On a hot and dry Mississippi afternoon, shortly before closing time, a sudden gust of trumpets added some much-needed swing to my step. The Big Band fusillade helped transport me not only to the front doors of the African American Military History Museum, Hattiesburg, Miss., but also back to what the place must've sounded like back in the day.

Motion-sensors in the otherwise deserted parking lot must've triggered the music. It was startling, but in a groovy sort of way.

The City of Hattiesburg, Miss., boasts not one but two military-themed museums. The Mississippi Armed Forces Museum on Camp Shelby, discussed in yesterday's post, is one. The other is the African American Military History Museum, located in the city's downtown Mobile-Bouie neighborhood, and operated and managed by the Hattiesburg Convention Commission.

The museum is housed in a former United Service Organizations (U.S.O.) club, where troops stationed at nearby Camp Shelby once met with Hattiesburg locals for fun and recreation. Built by volunteers in 1942, the now-historic landmark is the only existing USO facility built for African Americans still in public use. Having served as a library and community center in the 1950s and '60s, the building was fully restored and placed into operation as a museum in 2009.

The front doors open into a small lobby, which could serve as a place to read or talk. A soda fountain flanks the space, and there is also an adjacent reading room. Because the facility has ties to the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, the space can also be rented for small receptions and presentations.

The exhibits take up most of the original dance floor, winding and twisting from story to story, from American Revolution to Civil War to Vietnam to present day, and culminating at a 20-minute video presentation that takes place in a small theater carved from the cool darkness behind the USO's stage curtain.

In addition to Tuskegee Airmen and Buffalo Soldiers and the Triple Nickel, two Hattiesburg notables get much-deserved spotlights: Jesse L. Brown, the U.S. Navy's first black aviator; and Ruth Bailey Earl, one of 500 black U.S. Army nurses to serve in World War II. The latter's defiant and steadfast silhouette serves as part of the museum's dog-tag logo. I would've liked to have met Lt. Earl, and I'm very proud to serve in the Army she helped build.

Another personal favorite: A open-cab "Red Ball Express" Army transport truck, in which visitors can sit and take an interactive history quiz. (Correct answers generate happy honks; incorrect answers get screeches and crash-noises.)

The term "red ball" is a railroad code for "express shipping," and the Red Ball Express was an emergency long-haul trucking effort established in support of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. There was a 1952 movie about the units, which is one of my long-standing gotta-watch-it-when-it's-on-TV discoveries. "From beachhead to battlefront, they carry the ammo for Patton's tanks!"

Like Archer likes to say, "Amateurs talk tactics. Professionals talk logistics."

The African American Military History Museum is located at 305 E. Sixth Street, Hattiesburg, Miss. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sundays and Mondays. For more information, visit www.hattiesburguso.com, or call 601.450.1942.

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