A military salute

Aurora man’s vast collection honors veterans

JOHN PEARSON OF AURORA, Wis., with a display of Coast Guard uniforms at the Aurora Military Museum he created with the items he has collected since 1953. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

AURORA, Wis. — It started with one patch.

In 1953, John Pearson of Aurora obtained the embroidered cloth insignia for the 34th Infantry Red Bull Division of the U.S. Army and “I was in love with collecting,” he said. “It just expanded. I got this and that and it went from my little closet, to a wall.”

Today, 65 years later, Pearson owns every patch from all divisions of the military, in ranks from private to general, from World War II. They’re on display, along with military paraphernalia from the Civil War to the present day, at his Aurora Military Museum.

Karen Klenke, director of the Niagara Historical Museum in nearby Niagara, Wis., said she was “blown away” by the extensive collection Pearson has amassed over the decades.

“You don’t build that kind of collection without the passion that John Pearson has,” Klenke said. “He has an energy.”

THOUSANDS OF MILITARY patches from all divisions and ranks in the military, from private to general, beginning with World War II to present adorn the walls of the Aurora Military Museum. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

When Pearson started his collection, it cost him about 10 cents to purchase a patch. Now, depending on the piece, the same patch can run between $8 and $20.

Previously keeping his collection to himself, Pearson received attention when he entered the U.P. Hobby Show at the Kingsford armory in 1962. While most hobbyists had small tables set up, Pearson’s military display filled up half the gymnasium.

“Then I had people taking an interest in me, recruiting sergeants and things. And then I had people bringing me German helmets full of medals. It just snowballed,” he said.

His thousands of pieces of paraphernalia — including newspapers, magazines, photographs, pins, military uniforms, hats, models, weapons, flags, a WWII bunk, an Army jeep, a saddle from the Spanish American War, 70 pillowcases from the different units of military and a WWII Briggs and Stratton generator — have filled two separate buildings on his property.

The self-funded museum contains replica displays for flying ace Lt. Cmdr. Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare, Gen. George Patton, John F. Kennedy and Lt. Audie L. Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II.

A complete set of every medal received by Lt. Audie L. Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, is on display at the Aurora Military Museum. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

Murphy earned 27 medals that he gave away. While Pearson has a complete set of every medal Murphy earned on display, he can’t claim any of them are Murphy’s actual medals.

More than 100 mannequins dressed in military uniforms are placed throughout the museum. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a senior British Army officer who fought in both World Wars, is displayed with a set of ribbons. Gen. Douglas MacArthur is shown simulating the surrender of Japan.

Other displays show a model of the bomber plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; the uniforms of 1874 Lt. Col. Arthur V. Warfield, an assistant adjutant general in the Civil War; Cmdr. Louis J. Gulliver, the last commander of the USS Constitution; a memorial to the 101st Airborne commanding general of the Screaming Eagles; and a dedication to Vietnam veterans that contains every medal that was given out from the Vietnam War.

“I collected everything. Everything is authentic,” Pearson said.

“Taps” plays as patrons visit the memorial room, filled with high-ranking officers gathered around a casket covered by the American flag. “Privates, generals and admirals have visited this place,” Pearson said.

Pearson has stacks of Life magazines from the 1940s, trench art, a German soldier’s scrapbook filled with pictures from the Holocaust, a photo of seven members of the Domenic Lesandrini family of Kingsford, who served at the same time in World War II.

The Day family of the Norway-Vulcan area — who have a total of 150 years of service between the father and his children — donated uniforms, flags from the ships, medals and patches.

“I received all this first-person; it came directly from someone to me,” Pearson said.

His favorite item is a note and patch he received from then-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower while Eisenhower was a patient at Walter Reed Hospital. Pearson wrote to Eisenhower, and his reply is on display at the museum.

Although Pearson served in the National Guard from 1963 to 1967, he never saw combat.

“I was one of three from our unit that didn’t go to Vietnam,” he said.

But it added to the respect he has for all veterans and desire to honor them.

“One thing we do every year is host a party for the veterans from the nursing home. We have had hundreds of veterans here over the years. We use to pick up Kentucky Fried Chicken, but they closed, so this year we had Subway,” he said.

Adam Hayes, event organizer at the VA Medical Center, said the veterans have enjoyed Pearson’s collection throughout the years.

“It’s always a highlight of the summer and provides a walk down memory lane for all of us,” Hayes said. “John is a pleasure to work with and always makes us feel at home.”

Pearson also has donated 2 acres of land behind his property to the Aurora cemetery, for veterans whose families may not be able to afford a burial site.

Now that he is getting up in age, Pearson is slowing down on his collecting, admitting, “I don’t have anywhere to put it.”

He hopes someday to find a better place to display his artifacts. “I would like to see this sometime, in its entirety, somewhere where it’s doing it justice,” he said.

In the meantime, Pearson will continue to give tours at his home, by appointment only, to anyone interested in viewing the collection. For more information, call 1-715-589-4425.