LANSING — Buried deep below the street is a world from another time and place. It’s a museum of military memorabilia from the Revolutionary War through the Gulf War with a focus on the Civil War, World War I and World War II.
The hidden gem is in the basement of Crescent Jewelers, 18049 Torrence Ave., Lansing.
Curator David Hilpp said a former director of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans once visited and declared Crescent's collection and presentation better than that of his own museum.
The steep flight of stairs to the lower level of the jewelry store are flanked with walls covered in World War I era posters, ranging from those hawking war bonds to those advertising the services of organizations such as the YMCA and the Jewish Welfare Board. Signed prints of paintings of airplanes by leading aviation artist Robert Taylor hang on another wall. One is of the Memphis Belle, a World War II war plane that returned intact from enemy German territory with all of its crew members, who signed the print.
At the bottom of the steps, one finds a 3,500-square-foot, climate-controlled world of war. A treasure trove of rifles, handguns, knives, Samurai swords, helmets, jackets, uniforms and medals are stacked to the rafters. Represented are the United States, Germany and Japan.
Jewelry store and museum owner William Crescent, 57, has collected military memorabilia since he was 10. He was hooked by the items his uncles brought back from World War II. Crescent would write to veterans to ask to buy their relics and later asked jewelry store customers whether they had anything he could purchase from them.
One of Crescent’s most prized possessions is an 1863 Civil War promotion document signed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln.
When he got married, Crescent had a lot of items in his house and needed more space, so he moved them to the lower level of his store in Lansing.
People began to ask to see the “museum,” which was legally recognized as such in 2012, after he submitted the appropriate paperwork showing it met the required criteria.
“We’re officially a museum, according to state and federal laws, and not a nonprofit organization,” explained Hilpp. “We’re not tax exempt, nor do we charge admission or accept donations.”
Hilpp came to work for Crescent, and, because he, too, was a collector, he became the museum’s curator. Hilpp not only leads tours, but also is a font of knowledge. He gives guided tours three to five times per week to groups of at most 12, including scouts, veterans and historical societies. People have heard about the museum by word of mouth, Hilpp said, and visitors have come from all over the world, including Poland, Russia, Croatia, Belgium, France, England, Scotland, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, South America, Canada and China. In fact, the Chinese group asked whether the exhibit could travel to Beijing.
When Hilpp and Crescent buy items from veterans, they always interview them to see how and where they got them and under what circumstances.
“Everything here is authentic. We collect the group and the story,” said Hilpp. “That brings the items to life.”
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Of course, Hilpp said, he and Crescent do their due diligence to make sure details are correct. Then the stories are notarized as official historical accounts.
Pieces of particular significance include fez-shaped helmets worn by Muslim volunteers in Hitler’s army, as well as a very rare turban-shaped helmet worn by a Sikh volunteer. One of the American helmets with a golf-ball size hole is spray painted gold. The soldier who wore it was shot and lost the upper portion of his ear but lived to tell the story. He said he painted the helmet because it was “worth its weight in gold” for saving his life.
A mannequin of a full Samurai warrior keeps watch on the displays in the Japanese room and holds a Samurai sword that’s been shining since 1200.
There is even a three-foot wide Italian Fascist national ornament taken from a train station by an American officer in Palermo, Italy. The soldier hid it in a sewer until the war was over and brought it home. It was in his nephew’s garden for more than 40 years until its value was recognized and it was eventually acquired by Crescent.
The museum houses “the most complete U-boat captain’s grouping in the world,” according to Hilpp. This is rare because most U-boat captains did not survive World War II. Some years ago, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which has a U-boat on display, advertised worldwide to see whether any U-boat captains were living. One responded and Crescent and Hilpp were able to purchase his suitcase full of personal belongings from his boat.
Many displays include the swastika, the emotion-fraught symbol of Nazi Germany. There are the iconic German uniforms, which, as Hilpp pointed out, were designed with attention to detail by Hugo Boss.
There are photos from a U.S. soldier assigned to guard the Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials. He obtained the signatures of many of the 22 major Nazi criminals tried, including Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Wilhelm Keitel and Karl Doenitz. The signatures were matched to photos taken of 12 of the defendants right after they were hanged.
The signature of Hideki Tojo, Japanese politician, general of the Imperial Japanese Army, prime minister of Japan and president of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association during much of World War II, is there, sold to the museum by a U.S. soldier who guarded Tojo at the Sugamo Prison in Tokyo.
A cache from Norman Neitzke of St. Louis, one of the original "Band of Brothers," is on display. “Band of Brothers,” the subject of Stephen E. Ambrose’s 1992 book and a 2001 TV miniseries, tells the story of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division, Easy Company’s mission in World War II Europe. At the end of the war, when Easy Company raided Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest summer retreat, many of the men grabbed “souvenirs,” including fan mail addressed to Hitler that Neitzke retrieved.
Visitors’ reactions to the museum range from curiosity to awe, but all are touched. Hilpp said one World War II veteran became so emotional that he had to be taken away in an ambulance.
“Veterans especially are carried back to a time long ago and far away, and some break down in tears,” said Hilpp.
When asked why he has the museum, Crescent answered, “It’s not a tribute to or to glorify war; rather it’s a tribute to veterans who survived and to those who never came back. It’s a tribute to our country.”
Museum tours are available by appointment only. Call 708-418-5075.