While driving along the 28th Division Highway in Boalsburg, Centre County, it is hard not to notice the large, open field with neatly trimmed grass and elegant stone sculptures sitting serenely to one side of the road. A building, whose façade is decorated by several different colored ribbons, stands tall, protected by a massive pair of guns, armored tanks, and militarized vehicles. A 105mm Howitzer cannon, a truly intimidating weapon by nature, but inactive in reality, guards the entrance to this intriguing site.
Further exploration of the vast acreage of this site reveals a multitude of stone plaques adorned with the names of fallen soldiers, a massive battle tank dressed in jungle camouflage, a sturdy wall engraved with the words, “Dedicated with gratitude and respect to all those who served and especially to those who died to preserve freedom,” and finally, the brightly decorated entrance to the Pennsylvania Military Museum. Understandably, the scenery, war memorabilia, and museum signs imply the ultimate purpose of the museum: to appropriately recount the stories of the Commonwealth’s soldiers and civilians who have served the United States in its defense and for its freedom since World War I until present day. Nearly 100 years ago, Theodore Davis Boal created the museum to serve this purpose, and since then, the museum has honored a vast number of fallen, surviving, and current soldiers, military civilians, and POWs from Pennsylvania.
Theodore Davis Boal, an architect-turned-soldier from central Pennsylvania, played a significant role in the mobilization of the United States during its preparation for World War I. As the war intensified, American assistance to the European allies was vital to the outcome of the conflict. In effect, Boal became a strong and leading advocate for the Preparedness Movement in the United States, which called for the universal military training for all American men and women. In the early months of 1915, Boal volunteered with the French armed forces and soon became a quartermaster in a Belgian regiment. Convinced that the United States would soon be drawn into the war, Boal returned home to lay the foundation for a horse-mounted machine gun division that he believed would be a necessary addition to the Pennsylvania National Guard. After persuading thirty-three men to join, the Boal Troop was organized in May 1916.
Boal quickly established a training facility run entirely by militia members at his private estate. By no means was this a small operation, as it included all of the expenses involved in training, including uniforms, quarters, rations, horses, and other supplies. After a formal inspection of his training facility by Pennsylvania adjutant generals, Boal earned the rank of Captain because of his dedication to the war effort and his exceptional training program. On 6 April 1917, when the United States declared war on the Central Powers, the Pennsylvania National Guard was federalized as part of the United States Army. Knowing a deployment to the trenches of Eastern Europe was upon his troops, Boal reconstructed his training program to include a complete battlefield trench that was lined with barbed wire and shell bursts to simulate a real battlefield. After drilling, training, and preparing every two weeks for eight months, the Boal Troop was ready for war.
In May 1918, the members of the Boal Troop officially became the 28th Infantry Division of A Company and were sent to Europe. Fighting in numerous battles from St. Mihiel to the Argonne Forest, the 28th Infantry Division served valiantly throughout the war, suffering numerous casualties in the horrific trenches of the First World War. By the end of 1918, twelve men from A Company had been killed during deployment. For his honorable wartime efforts, Boal earned a Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for bravery and exceptional service.
As the “War to End All Wars” came to a close, Boal offered his estate in Boalsburg as a reunion spot for the officers of A Company. At the first reunion in 1919, a monument was created for the fallen soldiers; the next reunion extended the remembrance to all members of the 28th Infantry Division. According to the Historical Marker Database; “On the third Sunday of each May, the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division meets at the Shrine to pay tribute to their own in a tradition that began in 1919.” Throughout the 1920’s, the camp continued to be used as a training ground for the National Guard, with memorials for 28th Division members constantly being added. The land on which the museum now rests was purchased by the Department of Military Affairs and was administered as a shrine site for the state.
In an effort to further memorialize and honor Pennsylvanian soldiers, the Pennsylvania Military Museum developed many indoor and outdoor displays and exhibits. For example, after World War II, the Memory Wall to honor 28th Division officers killed in World War I was created. It was followed shortly thereafter by the establishment of the Keystone Division shrine. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission took over the administrative side of the site and created the Pennsylvania Military Museum, opening it to the public in 1969. In the past, the museum featured a World War I replica trench, which included battle sounds and a variety of displays. However, in 2005, the museum was completely rebuilt and reopened to the public. Today, the museum features increasingly popular displays, including the Wall of Honor, equipment dating from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, and a variety of vehicles and tanks from the 1900s.
Spanning the entire front of the museum, the Wall of Honor displays a painted version of the variety of medals that can be earned by or awarded to soldiers for their service to the United States. When a soldier earns a medal, a ribbon associated with the award is given to be worn on the soldier’s uniform. Ranging from the Medal of Honor, the highest military award possible, to the World War II Victory medal, the Wall of Honor highlights and memorializes some of the awards given to soldiers. The design of the Wall of Honor won an award for its architecture and can be seen clearly today from the 28th Division Highway while passing the site.
Behind the ribbon covered façade of the museum lies an information desk, museum store, and an orientation theater. The exhibits on display range from the colonial and Revolutionary War to the Vietnam War. The Civil War section of the museum includes four artillery pieces, the most prominent being a 6-pdr Model 1841 Field Gun, cast in 1842, and weighing in at 842 pounds. Another important exhibit is the Model 1917 6-ton Tank, which, according to the display, was used by a young Captain named Eisenhower to train soldiers at Camp Colt during World War I. Perhaps the most interesting display seen is the trench art created by World War I soldiers. According to the Altoona Mirror, “Typically, museums appeal to two types of people - art and military history. Here, the two meet. It’s an opportunity to see some very interesting pieces of found and created art.” The inside of the museum focuses on the tactics and logistics of warfare through a variety of displays, while the outside allows for historical remembrance through a variety of monuments in commemoration to soldiers and weapon systems in a setting in which they were used: out in the elements.
Another popular memorial at the Pennsylvania Military Museum is the 28th Division Shrine. Located next to the museum building, the 28th Division Shrine lies on the opposite side of a winding brook, accessible by a handsome stone bridge. Placed around the Memory Wall, which includes the names of soldiers who perished in WWI and WWII, are numerous monuments commemorating the infantry regiments of the division. The outlying stonewall contains the names of 114 fallen officers who died in battle, while the lower wall lists names of all the Pennsylvanians, enlisted and officers, who suffered the same fate. Also positioned around the shrine and in the museum are other memorials, including a display of a 77mm German cannon that was captured in war and a monument in remembrance of the 109th Field Artillery train wreck.
The Wall of Honor, the museum’s façade, and its several notable displays can certainly catch the eye of, or bring tears to, museum visitors. However, two of the most moving and powerful displays the museum has to offer lie near its entrance. The first, two massive guns from the USS Pennsylvania, a battleship commissioned in 1916, rest in a ghostly shooting position reminiscent of their true pose from nearly 90 years ago while they were mounted on the enormous ship. The ship itself was involved in a multitude of naval battles in the Pacific during World War II, including Pearl Harbor. After earning eight battle stars and the US Navy Commendation Award, the ship was decommissioned and its guns were dismantled and sent to a storage yard in Dahlgren, Virginia. With the guns recently discovered, they were delivered to the museum on 20 May 2009 and are currently on permanent display. The second display, the Sherman tank, stands staunchly just off the 28th Division Highway. General Norman D. Cota, the commander of the 28th Infantry Division in World War II, recommended it be placed on permanent display at the museum to venerate its importance in the war.
The museum’s appreciation and gratitude to the fallen extend past the displays and memorials by offering visitors the opportunity to glimpse into the past. Besides posting historical information near the displays, the grounds of the museum are used for a variety of events, including civil war re-enactments and veteran appreciation days. According to the Centre Daily Times, an event held entitled “Then and Now: A Military Timeline” has been hosted at the museum every September since 1998. The event explores a variety of wars from America’s past and present and includes an explanation of the life of a Civil War soldier, a brief synopsis about weapons systems used in modern war, and many other comparative realities of wars of then and now. According to Joe Horvath, the museum educator at the military museum, “Events like this keep history alive. It takes the collections on exhibit in the museum and breathes life into them.”
However, not all events at the museum revolve around war; in fact, some events focus solely on the promotion of peace. For example, on 21 March 2010, “a group of knitters looking to spread a message of peace” wrapped the guns of the USS Pennsylvania in a “long, hand-knitted, pink and purple scarf, complete with pom-pom.” Although the knitting was seen as illegal graffiti and taken down shortly after it was put up, the overall objective of the knitters revolved around their freedom to express their desire for peace instead of war.
From its inception in 1919, the Pennsylvania Military Museum has and continues to carry out its purpose of honoring Pennsylvania’s fallen soldiers. From reenactments that nearly bring some of the weapons systems back to life, to peaceful anti-war events that bring warmth to the cold steel of naval guns, the museum grounds offer a location that undeniably educates the public on military history. Theodore Davis Boal, a decorated soldier and creator of the once humbly-sized shrine can rest in peace knowing his idea has blossomed into the museum now seen today. The administrators of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission are sure to continue updating and preserving the site, adding anything that goes along with the purpose of the museum. Driving out of the exit of the museum, past the tank dressed tastefully in camouflage, past the enormous battleship guns, past the 105mm Howitzer, with the ribbon-covered museum in the rear-view mirror, whether one is pro-military or a peaceful supporter of the troops, the experience will enhance any visitor’s respect of those who have died to preserve American freedoms.