Wellsburg museum dedicated to WWII battle opens its $630,000 addition

SPECIAL DAY — Richard Lizza, president of the National American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, speaks Saturday to more than 200 people gathered for the group’s museum expansion dedication ceremony at the Brooke County Public Library. The main benefactors of the project, seated, look on. They are, from left, Jeanette Meriwether, Jon Meriwether, Nancy Hubbard and David Hubbard.

WELLSBURG — Ed Jackfert looked on from his front-row seat as the members of a World War II museum spoke about the progress it has made.

“It’s tremendous,” said Jackfert, a prisoner of war in the early 1940s, about the expansion of the National American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum and Research Center. “I hope this teaches our young people that war is nothing but hell.”

Jackfert, 98, was among the more than 200 people who attended a dedication Saturday of the museum’s newest space. The 4,500-square-foot, $630,000 addition to the Brooke County Public Library will allow the museum to display and archive the roughly 200 collections it has acquired.

Those collections, said Jim Brockman, museum curator and executive director, include 30,000 photographs, 1 million pages of documents and 1,600 POW diaries.

“People bring stuff here because they know they can get it preserved,” said Brockman, who is retired from the U.S. Navy. “There are some real delicate pieces we don’t put out.”

The curator said funding for the project came from 11 sources, but the majority of it came from donations of two Wellsburg families.

Jon Meriwether and his wife, Jeanette, gave the museum $250,000 for the expansion project. David Hubbard and his wife, Nancy, matched their gift.

“We felt like it was something that needed to be done,” said Jon Meriwether, who is the founder of Merco Marine and a longtime supporter of the library. “Neither (the Hubbards nor the Meriwethers) are out for the publicity.”

David Hubbard, who is a member of both the museum and library boards, said he saw it as an opportunity to help out both groups.

“We’re just honored to be able to do something,” he said.

The museum is named for the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Association, which honors those who took part in a Pacific Theater transfer of captured prisoners to Imperial Japanese Army POW camps. Jackfert is the former commander of the association.

In 1942, the Japanese forced between 60,000 and 80,000 captured Americans and Filipinos to walk more than 60 miles to a train station so they could transfer them to the POW camps. Between 500-600 Americans died, while Filipino deaths are estimated between as few as 5,000 and possibly as many as 18,000. Reports of the march include stories of grueling heat, dehydration, physical abuse and sporadic Japanese killings. The Allies later determined the Bataan Death March was a war crime.

Those who survived served as slave labor for the Japanese until they were rescued in 1945.

Although Jackfert was not involved in the Bataan Death March, Japanese soldiers did capture him — along with thousands of other Allied soldiers who were trying to defend the Philippines against invading troops — and kept him prisoner for three and a half years. Allied troops rescued him on Aug. 15, 1945.

The museum started in 2002 with Jackfert’s personal collection. Since then, it has received contributions from across the country. Brockman said that although most of the artifacts come from the Northern Panhandle, Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, he’s taken in items from as far away as Santa Fe, N.M. The museum also recently took in a collection from Buffalo, N.Y.

“We can’t display everything we have even with this (addition),” said Richard Lizza, who is the group’s president.

But the expansion definitely helps, museum officials said. Built by Dan Hukill Contracting, of Wellsburg, the new space includes 3,200 square feet of additional display space, rooms for storage and preparation of the museum’s materials, a new River Room overlooking the Ohio River, an 85-inch flat-screen display and sound system for meetings and updates to the building’s climate control system.

Lizza said some of the money went to purchase furniture that will help protect the items as they age.

“Virtually everything in (the museum) is encased in archival storage,” he said. “It’s here for perpetuity.”

During the dedication, those in attendance watched the Tri State Marine Corps Club present the colors and the Young Marines of Weirton retire them. They prayed with the Rev. Annie Parker, of Wellsburg First Presbyterian Church, during an invocation and for remembrance. They stood during Alan Cline’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” and sang “God Bless America” with him. And they saluted as Young Marines of Washington, Pa., laid the wreaths; the 59th Coastal Artillery gave a 21-gun salute; and Phil Greathouse played taps.

Those who gathered also heard remarks from Lizza, Brockman, Meriwether, library board President Ruth C. Lewis and library Director Alexandra L. Eberle. They also marched in a parade from the library on Main Street to a luncheon celebration at the Elks Lodge on Charles Street.

And some, such as Jackfert, reminisced about wartime trials they said make museums like Wellsburg’s necessary so history doesn’t repeat itself.

“They mistreated us, and we are the ones who gave them food,” said Jackfert. “But we were Americans, and that’s what Americans do.”