Mel Smith turned a 40-year hobby into a museum honoring veterans and educating young people about history and heroes.
For most of his life, Smith collected military memorabilia and displayed at special events or inside libraries. He called his collection the Michigan Traveling Military Museum. He still travels with his exhibits, but in the summer of 2018, Smith realized a long-time dream and opened a bricks-and-mortar museum at the corner of Center and Washington avenues in downtown Bay City.
From the sidewalk, the century-old building looks like any other downtown business. Inside, though, the museum’s displays pay tribute to the sacrifices people serving in the military have made throughout the nation’s history. War-era posters promoting liberty loans fill open walls. Medals, weapons, uniforms, and documents fill tabletop display cases. Uniformed mannequins stand in cases lining the walls.
Whenever possible, placards near the exhibits tell the stories of the sacrifices and victories behind the artifacts. “This is a business where there’s a lot of sacrifices,” Smith said.
Smith, director of the museum, loves telling the stories behind the exhibits.
The Michigan Traveling Military Museum displays photographs, certificates, and uniforms that belonged to Command Sgt. Maj. Lonnie Johnson.
There’s Command Sgt. Maj. Lonnie Johnson, a Vietnam War soldier who descended from sharecroppers. Johnson’s grandparents raised him in Flint. The family faced financial struggles. Johnson’s shirts were made from flour sacks. One pair of overalls was expected to last him for a full year.
Johnson overcame his obstacles to find success in the U.S. Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets. His story is told on the website and in the museum.
“There weren’t a lot of African Americans in the Green Berets,” Smith said. “He did it all by himself. He educated himself. He was an American story. He overcame adversity.”
Johnson told others he was inspired to help when he saw that many of the Vietnamese faced deeper poverty than he had. Command Sgt. Maj. Lonnie Johnson served in Vietnam for more than 5 years, learning about the country and its people. His military career lasted 30 years.
Johnson spent 5 ½ years in Vietnam and Cambodia. While there, he taught himself Vietnamese. He helped a woman facing a difficult childbirth in a remote mountain village reach a US Navy doctor before the baby was born. He built a new home for survivors of a Vietcong rocket attack. One year, he gave Christmas gifts of toothpaste, soap, candy, and nuts to 1,500 orphans.
He served on Operation Homecoming, which helped Prisoners of War in North Vietnam return home. He took beautiful photos of the country. After retiring from the Army in 1986, he taught military science at the Pusan American High School in South Korea. Eventually, he served as the school’s commander.
“I look at what a wonderful role model he is,” Smith said. “He faced a lot of adversity. He just said nothing is going to stop me. It just proves that you can do anything.”
The soldier’s son and namesake, Lonnie Johnson Jr., kept a few items, but told Smith he knew his Dad was a hero. He didn’t need artifacts to prove it. “I would love to have met him,” Smith said of Johnson Sr.
The stories keep Smith and his team engaged. “That keeps us going. That drives us,” Smith said. “Our whole goal with this is we want to have an established place where people can come and look.”
Most of the veterans who visit the museum served during the Vietnam era. Over the years, Smith has seen a change in how the Vietnam veterans are perceived. “They’re much more well respected now, which is wonderful,” Smith said.
The Military Museum is not government funded and doesn’t charge admission. It survives thanks to donations. The museum also sells small items, such as books. Smith’s wife, Pamela Smith, sews aprons from patriotic fabric, which are sold in the museum.
“I will never, ever make a penny here, but that’s not the idea. The idea is to honor veterans,” Smith said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Lonnie Johnson, who died at age 65 in 2000, grew up in poverty before joining the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam. While in the country, he learned the language and received accolades for helping the Vietnamese people.
He hopes that no admission charge makes it easier for parents and grandparents to bring children into the museum. “I want to get young people interested in history.”
Smith has a lifelong fascination with military history, although health problems prevented him from serving. His father was a World War II veteran who taught his son the importance of the military in US history. “We watched John Wayne war movies. He used to buy me bits and pieces of surplus. I don’t think he suspected it would get this large.”
He opened the museum after his wife retired from Delta College and was able to help create the museum’s exhibits. Family and friends volunteered labor to bring the museum to life. Today, about half a dozen volunteers help run the museum.
Dog tags, an identification card, medals, and patches all help tell the story of a Flint soldier who served in Vietnam during the war.
Hours are inconsistent as the team works around personal commitments as well as traveling to appraise and acquire artifacts. He posts them outside the building and tries to open up if people request private tours. He also adds hours for patriotic holidays, such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Veterans Day, observed on Nov. 11, celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, while Memorial Day in May honors those who died while in military service.
Smith expects to offer expanded hours this November but is unsure of the exact schedule. Hours will be posted outside the building. Museum volunteers also often post traveling exhibits on Facebook.
The Bay County Department of Veteran Affairs also is planning events in connection with Veterans Day on Nov. 11.
The Michigan Traveling Military Museum has permanent displays representing more than 100 years of military history. The museum is at 725 Washington Ave.
Craig Goulet, director of the Bay County Department of Veteran Affairs, said about 9,000 veterans live in Bay County alone.
The office provides a range of services including information, referrals and support services to honorably discharged wartime veterans and their families. Veteran Affairs offers connections to federal, state, and local resources.
The local office is wrapping up an extensive renovation project now and hopes to hold an Open House on Nov. 8. The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency gave the county a $76,000 grant to renovate its offices inside the Bay County Building, 515 Center Ave. The Veterans office was in a small space on the 2nd floor. It moved to a 1st floor suite including offices, a break room, conference room, waiting room, and new furniture. Goulet is excited to reveal the space to local veterans.
Events and information are posted on the Bay County Veterans Affairs Facebook page.