Veterans of all ages along with their families and friends shared in the opening of the St. Charles County Veterans Museum from 10 a.m.-6:45 p.m. on Friday, April 12.
The wide range of veterans served in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other postings around the world. They included men and women who had served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, Army National Guard, and Air Guard, regular and reserves. The event was the culmination of years of planning and dreaming. The mood was patriotic and festive though one of the museum’s visionaries was noticeably absent. WWII veteran Ralph Barrale passed away last year, but not before he saw the museum begin to take shape.
While there still is much to do, the museum, located at 410 East Elm Street in O’Fallon, has come a long way from Barrale’s original dream five years ago. Even compared to its Special Preview just four weeks ago on March 9, the museum showcased nearly twice as many exhibits during its grand opening as well as significant improvements to its grounds. A nonprofit, the museum continues to actively seek donations and loans of veterans’ artifacts to enhance its exhibits.
The day began just before 10 a.m. with St. Dominic’s High School Band, playing several patriotic songs and marches, a medley of anthems for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force – veterans of each branch quietly snapped to attention for their anthems – and at 10 a.m. the National Anthem to officially kick off the grand opening.
From 10 a.m.-4 p.m., visitors toured the museum and grounds and were able to chat with veterans and volunteers inside, while viewing the many exhibits.
At 4 p.m., the official ribbon-cutting ceremony was conducted, with Rose Barrale, Ralph’s widow, sharing ribbon cutting duties with her son and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt. Rose spoke to the crowd for a few minutes, thanking the many people who helped make Ralph’s dream for a veterans museum come true. She expressed her appreciation to the city of O’Fallon for providing the building and to the many volunteers and donors who made the museum a reality.
Attendees for the ribbon-cutting included Dardenne Prairie Mayor David Zucker, O’Fallon Mayor Bill Hennessy, Cottleville Mayor Jim Hennessey, plus several city and county council members and staff.
Museum organizer Jim Higgins expressed his thanks to the entire group of museum volunteers and the many businesses who donated money and time to set up the museum and grounds. He also thanked the many Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and the Fort Zumwalt School District’s Leadership Class for their volunteer hours. He said this truly was a community effort.
At 6 p.m., a dedication ceremony was conducted, including guest speakers, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, O’Fallon Mayor Bill Hennessy, Rep. Chrissy Sommer [District 106], and Sam Saffa representing U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley.
The keynote speaker for the Dedication was special guest Mendel Rosenberg, 90, a U.S. Army veteran [1951-1953] and a child survivor of Dachau. Rosenberg, who was born and raised in Lithuania, spoke of 230,000 Lithuanian Jews being rounded up in 1941 and sent to camps such as Dachau. Only 7,000 survived. He spoke about his time in Dachau and of reuniting with his mother a year after WWII ended; his mother had been sent to a different camp. He then learned that he and his mother were the only survivors from his entire family. Together, they emigrated to the U.S.
Rosenberg was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1951. He was not yet a U.S. citizen, so he did not have to go into the Army. But he said he remembered Dachau being liberated by the U.S. Army, so he felt obligated to repay that kindness by serving himself. He said he told the Army he was fluent in German and Russian. So with typical Army logic, he said, they sent him to Japan.
Rosenberg answered questions from the audience, including some from young children. His main overall message to everyone, based on what he had learned before, during and after Dachau is: “Don’t listen or follow just one person. Listen and follow what your parents and family say, but be an individual. Stand up for yourself.”
St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said he scrapped all of his prepared remarks after hearing what Rosenberg said. Instead, he said he would speak about a few personal things. He spoke about his uncle, who had been drafted in 1940 before WWII began for the U.S. He said that after the war began, because he was drafted so early, his uncle served in North Africa, Sicily and France. As the war was ending, his uncle was injured and lost a leg but he still was proud to have served.
Then, Ehlmann spoke about his father, also a WWII veteran who served in the 10th Armored Division of the 3rd Army. Ehlmann said he could never get his father to talk about the war and what happened to him. Finally, on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, for some reason, his father opened up a little. He spoke about being under heavy fire and needing to jump into a shell hole. He found out when he landed that there were two Germans already in the hole. Fortunately for him, unfortunately for them, they were dead. He said his father had promised God that if he survived, he would never miss going to church. And he always did go to church after that.
When Ehlmann read later that the 10th Armored Division was the first U.S. unit to liberate Dachau – and Rosenberg, it turned out – he asked his father why he had never mentioned it. His father said, “It was the worst day of my life, and I’ve been trying not to think about it ever since.”
O’Fallon Mayor Bill Hennessy spoke next, reminding the audience that this is a St. Charles County Veterans Museum, even though it is located in the city of O’Fallon. It is for all St. Charles County families and veterans. Mayor Hennessy was choked up and tearful [same as many in the audience] as he recalled meeting Barrale about five years ago, hearing about his dream, and then working with him and the volunteers over the years to make this happen. Hennessy said, “Here it is – and it’s free.”
Hennessy closed by saying the museum plans to build a KIA Memorial Wall, to list the names of 150 St. Charles County veterans killed in action. The museum is seeking a donor to provide the $2,000 needed to get this done. Hennessy said Ralph sincerely believed, “No one is ever gone, as long as someone still has memories of them.”
“Well, Ralph, thanks to your dream and efforts and this museum, no one will ever forget you,” Hennessy said.
Saffa spoke briefly, saying that Hawley sent his regrets, but he had to stay in Washington. Saffa said that Hawley is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he wants all St. Charles County veterans to know that if any of them have any problems with Veterans’ Administration or with benefits, they should contact him. Saffa said that he and Hawley thank all veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice.
The grand day wrapped up with all attendees going inside for a light meal at 6:45 p.m.