Oregon Military Museum: 'I will give my life for my country, but please don't forget me'

A photo of Clyde Curtain, Oregon's only Korean War jet ace, at the Oregon Military Museum. The museum is undergoing a total renovation in Clackamas, Ore. (KVAL News/Tom Adams)

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CLACKAMAS, Ore. - A piece of German artillery stands like a sentry guard at the entrance to the James B. Thayer Oregon Military Museum.

"This is a 210 millimeter Krupp mortar," curator Tracy Thoennes said. "It actually has a rifled barrel, so technically it's a howitzer."

The relic from World War I is among the 14,000 artifacts housed at the Oregon Military Museum.

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But most of the collection you can't see: the old Clackamas Armory building is going through a total transformation.

"The core exhibits will be the history of Oregon's military, starting with the Native Americans and warrior traditions of the first people here through today's activities on the global war on terrorism," Thoennes said.

Most of the treasures and their stories have been mothballed since 2009.

That's when base realignment at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas gave the museum a chance to expand.

The oldest artifact is a 1776 cannon used by the 2nd Oregon militia in the Spanish American War. It's under wraps.

The newest is an explosive ordinance bomb suit used by the Oregon Air National Guard.

"I took it for granted until I started getting involved in this project," said Amy Maxwell, "and then I really realized the importance of what people have done for us."

Maxwell is in charge of finding $16 million for the project.

So far, $7 million is in the bank.

"Our goal for this year is $2 million," Maxwell said, "and so we want to keep the project moving forward, the construction moving forward."

The namesake of the new museum is Oregon Brigadier General James B. Thayer, winner of the Silver Star during World War II.

His son Tommy Thayer is the lead guitarist for the rock band KISS - and has taken a lead in fundraising for the museum.

"He participates a good deal in events of this nature and kind of within the industry that he's in, and then the family itself was very passionate about doing this," Maxwell said.

But the museum is more than a collection of old stuff.

It's the stories behind the objects that Thoennes wants to tell.

Like the pictures from the Clyde Curtain collection.

"He is actually Oregon's only Korean War jet ace," Thoennes said.

Ultimately, the team is on a mission to transform the museum from a place that used to attract about 4,000 visitors per year into a place that attracts 10 times that number.

"You'd be hard pressed to find any finer examples, even in the Army museum system," said Mark Stevens, a Portland Police Bureau retiree-

He's the museuam's self-appointed restoration manager.

Among his projects is a troop transport rig.

"It'll get up and go," he said. "We try to put these things back in to a functional condition."

"Young men often come here and they want to see weapons and they want to see the cool toys, so to speak," Thoennes said. "But at the same time we tell the truth very objectively. That's what museums do."

For Maxwell, a quote from an Oregon veteran at a recent fundraiser sums up everything they're trying to do.

"He said, 'I will give my life for my country, but please don't forget me.' And that quote has forever kind of touched my soul because to me, it's what the museum is all about," she said.

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