In the midst of Halloween and leaf season fervor that sweeps Western North Carolina around this time of year, it can be easy to forget that Veterans Day is right around the corner as well.
From the earliest fights for independence on the edge of King’s Mountain to the local college students who served in the trenches of World War I to men like Charles George — Medal of Honor recipient from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and namesake of the Veterans Administration Center in East Asheville — WNC’s residents have served their country and cause honorably, giving their time and sometimes their lives, in defense of their home.
The WNC Military History Museum in Brevard hopes to highlight the stories of this region’s veterans and educate a new generation on their contributions in an upcoming exhibit, “Operation Armed Forces,” which will open Saturday, Oct. 22, and run through Friday, Nov. 11, at the historic Aethelwold Hotel in downtown Brevard.
Using a vast array of artifacts, period newspapers and personal items from the time, combined with a series of lectures by military veterans and authorities, museum curator Emmett Casciato and his team hope to bring these tales of heroism and sacrifice to the front and center of residents’ consciousness and create a one-of-a-kind experience.
Serving those who serve
Casciato cites his father’s service in the Navy during World War II and his daughter’s service in the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan as driving influences behind his interest in opening a museum based around military history.
“I am not a veteran — I’m doing this because I want to give back to them,” Casciato says.
A longtime collector of of military artifacts and memorabilia ranging from World War I to the present day, Casciato, a former teacher, began taking his traveling museum to various high schools and locations around Florida before moving to Brevard several years ago.
“I’ve always been a military history buff, and not just the weaponry and the blood and guts,” he notes. “I enjoyed talking about the political aspects as well — why we got into World War I, what were some of the ramifications of World War II, how the OSS started. That’s the type of history I enjoy passing on to the younger people.”
After putting on one such exhibit at Connestee Falls, where he currently lives, for the local members of the American Legion, Casciato says the idea for a permanent museum took off from there. “A couple people from the Legion saw it, and we just started meeting here and there, and talking about a dream we all had to do something like this,” he recalls. “All the sudden, we were up and running.”
Since then, Casciato has fielded an ever-growing number of calls from locals offering to add their family heirlooms and artifacts to the collection. “People are constantly giving me more artifacts and uniforms, medals, unbelievable stuff,” he says. “I can’t believe the phone calls I get from people. We could fill up a two-story building with no problem.”
Time for heroes
The “Operation Armed Forces” exhibit will be open seven days a week from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. between Oct. 22 and Veterans Day in the Aethelwold Hotel lobby, which played an important role in establishing the American Legion, says Casciato.
“In 1920, the World War I veterans from Transylvania County got together in that lobby and formed the first American Legion,” he says. “The lobby looks the same as it did then. When [hotel management] offered me the lobby for the exhibit, I walked in and said, ‘This is it.’”
The exhibit will begin with a special opening day ceremony Saturday, Oct. 22, with participation from the Rosman and Brevard high school ROTC chapters as well as appearances by Brevard Mayor Jimmy Harris, local elected officials and veterans, and a special appearance from a two-star general who commanded the famed 42nd Infantry Division during the Iraq War.
“I’ve been putting fliers in all the hotels and doing radio spots on the local station about the museum,” Casciato says. “We’ll have some guys dressed up in garb; we’ll have a World War II jeep with a .30-caliber machine gun sitting out front on opening day. It’ll be really cool.”
In addition to a host of memorabilia and artifacts ranging from period weaponry and uniforms from U.S. soldiers and their adversaries to authentic newspaper articles and personal letters — which will be rotated throughout the exhibit to accommodate the museum’s expansive collection — “Operation Armed Forces” will also feature a series of lectures and presentations from local veterans throughout its three-week run.
“We have a U2 pilot — how many people know a U2 pilot? — who’s an author too,” Casciato says. “I have a special forces guy who started in the Green Berets in the 1950s. I have a B-52 bomber navigator from Vietnam who actually had control as the bombardier. He’s going to talk about that experience.”
In addition to the lecture series, the exhibit will play host to local Marines on Thursday, Nov. 10, the anniversary of the Marine Corps’ founding. “They’re coming over to the museum for their happy hour, and I’m going to be the bartender for them,” Casiciato says. “We’ll have the junior ROTC Marine Corps open the door for all the veterans. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Bringing the past to life
With its recent certification as a nonprofit, Casciato says this exhibit is a big step toward the WNC Military History Museum’s ultimate goal: finding a permanent location to house its ever-growing collection. “This three-week engagement we have now is the springboard for the permanent location here in Brevard,” he notes excitedly.
Casciato adds that he has been in ongoing talks with Transylvania County Board of Commissioners about finding a permanent location. “It’s not going to cost the taxpayers or county anything,” he notes of a possible permanent museum. “We’ll pay for all our utilities; we’ll cut the lawn; we’ll fix the plumbing — we can take care of all of that. The only two things we need [help with] is the HVAC system and roof.”
With the organization in place to help procure tax-deductible donations from companies around the region, Casciato is hoping that the WNC History Museum can not only become a destination for travelers to the area, but a force for giving back to the community.
“None of us are going to be salaried or get a wage out of this,” he reports. “All the money goes back into the museum, and whatever’s left will be donated to the Marine Corps, Junior ROTC, to the Legion, to Wounded Warriors and the VFW, or help people in the community that need some financial assistance.”
He also hopes that the museum will help educate students around the area on the importance of this history and the lasting effects of those sacrifices made on behalf of this country. With a recent American Council of Trustees and Alumni report noting that less than one third of the country’s top universities require students to take a course in U.S. history, Casciato says exposing students to this country’s heritage has become paramount.
“That’s why we are reaching out to the high schools, bringing artifacts to show them what it was like being an 18-year-old and having an M1 Garand in your hand and having the enemy coming at you,” he says. “We want to let them know what came before them and why they have the freedoms they have, because of the sacrifices of the men and women who came before them.”
The WNC Military History Museum’s “Operation Armed Forces exhibit will be open daily, 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., at the Aethelwold Hotel at 23 South broad Street in Brevard from Saturday, Oct. 22 through Nov. 11. Admission is free to the public. For more information on the WNC Military History Museum or “Operation Armed Forces” exhibit, visit wncmilitaryhistorymuseum.com.