In Salem’s VFW attic, military uniforms tell stories of war

Tom Vanderhoof puts away the uniforms of a Civilian Conservation Corps member. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Hundreds of uniforms hang neatly in clear plastic in the attic of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Marion Post 661.

On an overcast day in early November, Tom Vanderhoof walks up the small staircase into the cold attic, readying the uniforms for a busy season. A section of the uniforms is marked, their destinations noted on blue tape.

The uniforms serve as time capsules, telling the story of the individuals in the larger narrative of war. Some are currently part of a World War II exhibit at the Oregon State Capitol.

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In the VFW’s attic, however, are close to 1,800 more. Each one has an accompanying page that talks about the person who wore the uniform.

It could be a cadet nurse, a Civilian Conservation Corps member or an Air Force pilot.

A cadet nurses uniform in the attic of Salem’s VFW. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

A biography hangs on William C. Dale’s former dress blues. It reads the Prineville pilot flew B-17 and B-24 aircraft in World War II with a group nicknamed “Bats out of Hell.” He completed 44 combat missions during his time in Europe and went on to serve in Vietnam as well.

Vanderhoof, an Air Force veteran, said the uniforms tell a more complete story versus a singular item.

“This tells everything that he did, where he walked, what his job was,” he said. “That’s why we display the uniforms, because it gives you the most information.”

He pointed to one uniform with an insignia showing the veteran served in three wars.

“Let’s say they made an ash tray out of a 50mm cannon shell. Well it’s an ashtray some guy made it, boom it stops there. This story goes from World War II all the way past into Vietnam and further. Because this guy he might’ve been in 30 years,” Vanderhoof said.

The collection’s oldest original uniform is from the Spanish-American War of 1898.

But the uniforms and history aren’t limited to American soldiers. There are uniforms worn by Germany’s Nazi forces. One section includes the uniforms worn by Viet Cong soldiers.

One uniform is black-and-white camouflage with silhouettes of men parachuting. According to the biography, it belonged to Park Youn Hong and was worn during military training at a South Korean high school in 1982.

Tom Vanderhoof holds up a high school military uniform from South Korea. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Vanderhoof said the Uniform Display Museum gets the uniforms through donations, oftentimes after a veteran has died.

Museum volunteer Jerry Brixius said, “This is what the individual takes home with them when they get out, we’re keeping their history alive.”

Brixius, a Marine Corps. veteran, said when his daughter went through high school Vietnam was only two pages long in her history book. And World War II was no bigger, he said.

“This is helping preserve that. That’s all we’re trying to do is preserve that history and educate people.”

Uniforms hang in the VFW Marion Post 661. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.