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There is a place in Colonial Williamsburg reserved for veterans. But not all of them know it. – Daily Press

WILLIAMSBURG — Tucked away behind a shop on Duke of Gloucester Street is a small but distinct red building called the Liberty Lounge, a place where active-duty service members and veterans can take a break while visiting Colonial Williamsburg.

Opened over Memorial Day weekend in 2016, the fair has since amassed dozens of military and war stories collected by volunteers, many of whom are military personnel themselves.

“Colonial Williamsburg is a living history museum, but it’s a place for veterans and their families to unwind, relax and meet other service members,” said John Wailes, one of more than 60 volunteers. who devote their time to the daily staffing of the salon.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the building was closed from March 12, 2020 through April 1, 2022. The lounge, however, hosted 233,585 guests through April 30, according to Colonial Williamsburg Foundation department supervisor Joe Garcia. . of historical interpretation.

Veterans come to use the lounge to have a drink, use the restroom, or just hang out. Upon arrival, they often chat with a volunteer or other visiting veteran. Then the stories start to unfold.

“I was in a tank battalion during the Second World War. It was called the ‘Black Panthers’ and we were part of [Gen. George] Patton’s Army.

That’s what Staff Sgt. Thomas Mangrum, a WWII and Korean War veteran, once told Bill Pearson, a retired colonel and 30-year Air Force veteran (1968-1998). Pearson, who has volunteered at the salon since it opened, remembers many stories of Mangrum, whose neighbor had urged him to come.

“When I first saw him he was wearing a cap with ‘WW2 Veteran’ on it and I knew he was special,” Pearson said. “One day [he] walked in and sat next to the coffee machine and we asked him about his military life and career. He started talking and talking and talking. He was then 90 years old. We wanted to capture his stories.

Mangrum, since deceased, returned several times in a few years. “He would sit and talk and young children would sit on his lap and he would tell his stories,” Pearson said. “What a great guy! »

The WWII veteran’s story is one of many recently remembered by a group of volunteers, who have put together an album with photos and stories from veterans. Their efforts are aimed at saving veterans’ stories and letting the community know why it matters.

“One of the main reasons I want to get these veterans’ stories out is because we sit here on the peninsula with a lot of military installations and a lot of retirees living here,” Wailes said. “But they don’t know about the Liberty Lounge, let alone have visited it.”

Many veterans or active-duty service members didn’t know the show existed before they stumbled upon it, said Wailes, an Army veteran and recruited in 1967. But the more people learn about it, “the more the stories will flow,” Wailes said. “Veterans often come here and find each other – from the same unit or from the same hometown.”

Steve Tallon, who served in the Connecticut National Guard from 1965 to 1971 and volunteered at the show with his wife Claudette, recalled a moving story that was somewhat personal.

Bob Serio was Tallon’s high school friend and class valedictorian who went to West Point, graduating in 1964. Serio was sent to Vietnam and was eventually killed there in 1968, “falling on a hand grenade and rescuing his nearby troops,” Tallon explained. .

“Just before the pandemic a man came in and we talked, and he said he had gone to West Point and graduated in 1964. I asked him if he knew Bob Serio and he explained that he knew him well and we started talking about Bob.

Tallon pointed out, “If you talk to enough people, there are people you know or who know someone you know. It’s just an amazing place to bring people together.

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When the salon opened in 2016 with the encouragement of Elizabeth Reiss, wife of Colonial Williamsburg President Mitchell Reiss, she described the salon as “just a place [military folk] can come for a break, maybe get out of the heat. Providing for the military, Reiss said at the time, was an old Colonial Williamsburg tradition.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, military veteran William Chappi and his family from Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, did just that. They paused, stopping at the living room after seeing a sign on the street pointing the way behind the millinery store.

“It’s just awesome,” Chappi said. “I am amazed at the way Colonial Williamsburg treats veterans. I learned so much about military discounts and what is available for veterans in Virginia.

Inside the living room are two small rooms. The back room has a coffee machine, water fountain and handicap accessible toilets, while the front room has tables and chairs. In the front room, the walls are full of military photographs associated with Colonial Williamsburg, such as the 1946 visit by General Dwight D. Eisenhower and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and photos of the two Second World USO clubs. City World War.

There are also four framed challenge coin collections – uniquely designed coins that represent military units, bases or locations. The living room even has its own challenge room; frequently, veterans come with their own coins and wish to add them to the collection or exchange them for a Colonial Williamsburg-Liberty Lounge coin.

“A family member came in two weeks ago,” recalls Joni Stevens, a lounge volunteer who worked for 23 years in the White House military office. “His sister had passed away and received a medal from the Persian Gulf. He wanted her medal locked away with our challenge coins.

Among the other treasures is a lighter from the Da Nang Non-Commissioned Officers Club.

One of Stevens’ favorite stories is about retired Lt. Gen. Richard G. Trefry, who was 95 when he visited the show on Christmas Day 2019. After he arrived, Trefry was asked what he was up to. he wanted to do. His response: “Talk to the soldiers. That afternoon he sat down and shared stories of his days of active duty in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Trefry turns 98 on August 8, and Stevens expects to see him return and speak with soldiers in the living room again.

Another story concerns a Vietnam Marine Corps veteran, an older man who was visiting his wife. Within minutes, a disabled Navy vet arrived with a cane, two hearing aids and very thick glasses. Then, an active duty Marine arrived with his wife.

Stevens said she told the young couple about the other Marine couples in the back room.

The three couples started talking and the two older Marines discovered that they had been assigned to battalions in Da Nang at the same time in March 1965. When the older disabled Marine left, he said goodbye “the tears in his eyes and said he had just had the best day in a very long time,” Stevens said.

When the young Marine couple left, she added, they said they “learned the history of the Marine Corps firsthand by listening to the older men.”

Among the other stories in the Volunteer Scrapbook is that of World War II veteran Richard “Dick” Clark, a fellow Navy gunner who was near Bikini Atoll in mid-1946 when he witnessed Test Baker, the first underwater nuclear detonation, three miles away. .

There is also the story of an underwater diesel mechanic, John Donnelly, who served in the Navy during the Korean War and had been a congressional page assigned to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When you shook his hand, he always recalled that “you just shook the hand that shook hands with President Roosevelt and Vice President Harry Truman.”

Sherry Macdonald, a Williamsburg native and lounge volunteer whose husband was a 30-year naval aviation veteran, recalls the day a woman brought her husband, who was obviously suffering from dementia, into the lounge.

“There were other veterans there and he started to chat with them and we watched him unfold,” Macdonald recalled. “The dementia seemed to disappear. I stayed away and his wife too. She didn’t need to push him. He just came to life.

The Liberty Lounge is on the first floor of the Margaret Hunter Workshop, the red building behind the millinery on Duke of Gloucester Street. The salon is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Customers need a blue star sticker on their admission ticket, which can be obtained at any Colonial Williamsburg box office with proof of military service.

For more information, visit colonialwilliamsburg.org/locations/liberty-lounge.

Wilford Kale, [email protected]