Museum's new mural brings war artifacts to life

Submitted on March 21, 2013


WALHALLA - The walls of the stairwell and the second story hallway of Patriots Hall: Oconee Veterans Museum tell the story of America's heroes. Recently painted by Salem artists Jim and Donna Juras, the two-story mural depicts important moments in American warfare from the Revolutionary War to present day battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mural mirrors the walls of museum, covered in war artifacts from every American-fought war.

"All of these artifacts are donated or are on loan from Oconee County residents," said A.J. Smith, president of the Veterans Museum.

A.J. Smith holds a medal of honor on display at Patriots
Hall: Oconee Veterans Museum. The medal belongs to
Lewis G. Watkins, the only person to receive the medal
(posthumously) from Oconee County.

Jon Busch, vice president, said South Carolina has a large population of American veterans - about 450,000. "In Oconee County, there are 9,000 veterans, which means there is a veteran in roughly one in every three homes," he said. Both Smith and Busch are military veterans themselves, from the Vietnam War era. Smith served three tours in Vietnam and was wounded twice.

"The first time, a young Vietnamese girl jumped out from a hay pile and shot me in my mouth," he said. Smith has many stories of Vietnam, including that of his pet monkey, Susu. "I found him in the jungle when he was about six weeks old. He would climb on my shoulder and sit there - I say he saved my life, he was always looking around," Smith said. "He would sleep curled up beneath my helmet every night. He was like a best friend."

Busch was stationed in Germany from 1969 to 1971.

Several artifacts from the Vietnam War room in the museum belong to both men. There are plenty of unusual items on the museum walls, including a medal of honor, a pair of military snowshoes and military maternity pants.

This destroyer escort submarine chaser replica is
on display in the collections room at Patriots Hall
in Walhalla.

Lewis G. Watkins' medal of honor was awarded to him posthumously after he died in the Korean War protecting his comrades from a grenade explosion in their foxhole. Watkins, whose medal is on display, is the only person from Oconee to receive a medal of honor.

The snowshoes and the maternity pants?
"Kids that come in here always ask me what those (snowshoes) are," Busch said. "Did you know that even today the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army is a type of ski patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan?"

Referring to the maternity pants, "That's a new thing," he said. "When I was in the military, getting pregnant was a 'no, no.' They're probably the strangest thing in here," he joked.

The museum's collections room, which includes a large display of knives and bayonets, has a six-and-a-half-foot-long working model of a destroyer escort submarine chaser used in World War II, as well as a wall of model planes.

"Young students that come in here don't realize that there was a time when helicopters didn't exist - the planes on display always fascinate them," Busch said.

Busch said the museum is proud of its library and video room, which holds a well-stocked collection of military-related books available for checkout, as well as videos of veterans telling their stories. A television is available to pop in a tape and watch.

"If these veterans aren't recorded before they die, the history is gone, forgotten. We have to preserve it," he said. "Students can come in here and check a book out or watch videos for project references and such. It's a great resource.

Jon Busch stands next to a section of a recently
completed mural in Patriots Hall painted by a Salem

The library is also a conference room made available to anyone who asks.

"We open our doors at any time, for anyone," Busch said.
The museum itself is a useful resource, and students typically visit several times a year.

"There are things in this museum that aren't necessarily in the history books," Busch said. "Not to mention, the museum has as much science as it does history. You learn about the transformation from muskets to machine guns. There is a lot of military evolution."

Smith said the annual Vet Fest poker run is scheduled for March 30 and benefits the Oconee Veterans Museum.

"There will be three stops around Oconee, and motorcycles and cars alike are welcome to participate," Smith said. "There will be a band and barbecue at The Post in Salem (where it starts and ends)." He said he typically has a good turnout for the 78-mile ride.

Registration lasts from 11 a.m. until noon, and the last bike leaves The Post at 1 p.m. and returns at 3:30 p.m. Admission is $25/bike or car, and $10 for an additional passenger. For information, call Smith at (864) 280-0107 or visit

(Vet Fest was scheduled for Saturday, but expected rains pushed it to March 30.)
The Oconee Veterans Museum is open each Saturday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Patriots Hall, known as the historic "Old Rock Building," is at 13 Short St. in Walhalla. Call Smith at (864) 280-0107 or (864) 972-8173 to tour the museum during the week.
Donations are accepted at any time - a donor can have a brick placed on the sidewalk on Short Street for a gift of $50 or more. | (864) 973-6681

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