A roll call of America's monuments to heroism would name many sites, each one celebrating Americans who have willingly risked their lives for their nation and their comrades in arms. From the battlefields of America's Civil War to the somber monuments surrounding Washington, D.C., most of these locations are well known to schoolchildren and adults alike.
And then there's Fresno, Calif. Fresno? Absolutely. Nestled near the southern end of California's vast Central Valley, Fresno is home of the national museum dedicated to honor the members of America's Legion of Valor.
The Legion of Valor is composed of the recipients of America's two highest medals for heroism: the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC)/Navy Cross/Air Force Cross. Organized in 1890 as the Medal of Honor Legion, the organization adopted its current name at the conclusion of World War I, when it expanded its membership eligibility requirements to include recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross. The organization was subsequently chartered by an act of Congress and approved by President Eisenhower in August 1955.
Why Fresno? Museum director Maj. Charles J. (Chuck) Monges, USMC Ret., a Navy Cross recipient, explains: "Like airplanes landing out at the airport because that's where the airport is, the Legion of Valor Museum is here in Fresno simply because that's where the building is."
The building Monges refers to is the Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium located in the middle of downtown Fresno. Originally built in the mid-1930s, the art deco structure had fallen into a state of disrepair when it was targeted by local Legion of Valor members to be their national museum.
Monges is quick to credit the cooperation and continuing support Fresno officials provide for the success of the renovation project. The museum now occupies the space under a 20-year lease at $1 a year. Moreover, along with the museum halls and ancillary facilities, the remodeled auditorium also provides office space for several other veterans organizations, including the American Legion and the Military Order of the Purple Heart. "Deputy City Manager Bobby Quesada was one of the prime movers in this thing. Without him, this museum never would have happened," Monges says. "When people said no, I'd call Bobby, and it would get done."
Following a massive cleanup effort, the museum slowly began to take shape. Display halls were prepared and decorated on a shoestring budget. The museum director points to 16-inch-wide blue material, "discounted from $9 to $4 a yard," glued onto the walls, and $5-per-yard secondhand carpeting on the floor. Acquisition of other salvaged materials followed, like the vertical and horizontal "appointments," along with an assortment of display cases graciously donated by supporters and department stores. "Everything that you see here has been donated little by little," Monges says. "Today, we have about 18 docents and about 20 staff members -- all volunteers. Nobody gets paid here."
"Everything that we have here is donated by the veterans," explains museum curator Ray Lee. A former combat medic, Lee says: "When they want to donate something, I ask them to bring it in so I can see what they have. If we don't have it, I'll take it."
Lee's eclectic approach to acquisitions has resulted in a fascinating mix of displays, ranging from a small pile of sand from Iwo Jima to a 1901 .30-caliber Gatling gun that has been lovingly restored to demonstrate its full internal workings. Between those ends of the exhibit spectrum, the museum also contains a wide range of items and personal effects donated by medal recipients like the Blacksheep Squadron's Maj. Gregory (Pappy) Boyington, U.S. Marine Corps, a former resident of Fresno; Brig. Gen. James H. (Jimmy) Doolittle; and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, whose combat record during the Vietnam War earned him the Distinguished Service Cross with oak leaf cluster (two awards).
Along with the main display halls, several adjacent rooms have specific themes, ranging from Pearl Harbor -- including photographs taken by Japanese pilots -- to prisoners of war.
Monges' brief walking tour passes a photograph of the director as a young Marine Corps platoon sergeant in the middle of a group of three men receiving the Navy Cross during World War II. To his right stands a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel whose son serves as the current Commandant of the Marine Corps.
The back wall of the museum features an exhibit case containing examples of the Medal of Honor and valor crosses awarded by each service, along with a portrait gallery of Medal of Honor recipients. Among its heroes, the gallery includes a portrait of Dr. Mary E. Walker, a Civil War surgeon who became the only female recipient of the nation's highest valor medal based on her actions in the Andersonville (Ga.) Prison. Although Dr. Walker's status as a paid contractor caused her award to be rescinded by military board action early in the 20th century, her medal was subsequently restored by President Carter.
The organization's historical overview notes: "It must not be interpreted that only those who have been decorated have performed deeds of valor. The names of thousands of men -- yes, even more -- who have performed similar deeds are written on the rolls of the Army and Navy ... unfortunately, their acts have been unobserved, and we know of them only through the final results achieved. Only those have been decorated whose deeds were observed by impartial and disinterested eyewitnesses."
In spite of the organization's primary focus, this broader acknowledgment of military valor is evident throughout the museum. The main lobby, for example, features large plaques that list local recipients of awards like the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. "You move to Fresno, and your name goes up there," Monges explains. "We do that primarily for the families."
Additional examples of honoring contributions of other veterans include a separate room dedicated to veteran Geno P. Pallesi and another display honoring museum volunteer Capt. Carolyn Tanaka, RN. The Tanaka display honors all service nurses with specific emphasis on those nurses who have been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Taking an idea from the personal icons deposited at the base of the Vietnam Memorial, Monges has also opened a display case to exhibit any ribbon or medal donated by any veteran who visits the museum. "Somebody has worn these at one time or another. Anyone who brings one in, I will put it in there; just stack them up. Sure, we're going to preserve the Navy Cross and other service crosses and the Medals of Honor. I am also preserving, however, all medals, including any ribbons that were worn by somebody."
Along with support from the City of Fresno, Monges says that Pete Mehas, superintendent of the Fresno County School District, has embraced the museum as a unique local resource. School groups are frequent visitors to the facility, where students are given a room-by-room questionnaire to answer for additional class credit. The school district is also helping to preserve the organization's archives.
Other educational and community outreach program resources provided by the Legion include a lending library and an auditorium. The survivors of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo are among the groups that have used the auditorium for meetings or reunions.
The Legion of Valor has even extended its outreach beyond the museum grounds by sponsoring the remodeling of a Legion of Valor Room at the local VA Hospital.
"This is a people's museum," Monges concludes. "People come in here and say, I saw that,' I won that,' or, My father had that.' It's nothing big, but it's the people's story."
SCOTT R. GOURLEY, a freelance writer, is a contributing editor to ARMY Magazine.