This University of West Chester student has amassed a museum-worthy collection of military history

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Adam MacMillan, a student at the University of West Chester, has been studying American military history intensely since eighth grade.

It started when he learned that his three great-uncles had fought in World War II, and his passion grew as he met more veterans, heard their stories, and happily accepted their uniforms. soldiers and the objects they carried on the battlefield. The sophomore has amassed a museum-worthy collection of hundreds of pieces in his basement in Cranbury Township, NJ.

Then last month, that story came to life in a new way as he sat next to 98-year-old D-Day veteran Bob Gibson at a cemetery in Normandy, France, for American soldiers. died during World War II.

The 19-year-old put his hand on Gibson’s back and started crying.

“I could just see myself in Bob,” MacMillan said, recounting the experience last week.

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And with good reason. Gibson was about the same age as MacMillan when he stepped onto the Normandy beach and took part in the invasion that would lead to Germany’s defeat. He was about the same height and weight as MacMillan. They even wear the same shoe size. He had a hard time imagining himself, being 19 years old and fighting in World War II.

The two were part of a group that went on an eight-day trip set up by the Best Defense Foundation, a California-based nonprofit founded by former NFL football player Donnie Edwards that brings back the World War II veterans on the battlefields where they served. The veterans are accompanied by young volunteers, like MacMillan, who serve as personal caretakers. This year’s trip, covered by donations, coincided with the 78th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. Gibson, a resident of Hunterdon County, NJ, who was interviewed by NBC Nightly News while there, was among 28 veterans who went, seven of whom had participated in D-Day.

“I was so happy to have been able to be part of this experience for him,” MacMillan said.

It is essential, said the teenager, that his generation takes pride in history, learns from it and remembers the sacrifices made by the military.

“Otherwise all will be lost,” he said.

Michael Malone, 42, a Wall Township, NJ, police officer and volunteer with the Best Defense Foundation, said such intense interest and appreciation from someone as young as MacMillan is extraordinary.

“Adam knows more about World War II than anyone I know,” he said. “When I have a question, I call him.”

MacMillan said his interest began when his class was studying the Holocaust and he asked his father about their relatives’ involvement in the war. His father pulled out a bag of German war medals taken from dead or captured soldiers. They were brought back by one of the teenager’s great-uncles, his father told him.

He would learn that two great-uncles, Raymond and Richard, had served in the army during World War II, while another, Elmer, was a cook on a landing ship in the Pacific. His grandfather was a soldier in the Air Force after World War II, and another great-uncle, a Marine, served in Vietnam. This uncle gave him a collection of 300 photographs he had taken there.

He began searching for military memorabilia online and frequenting flea markets, where he discovered a few Purple Hearts that had been donated or lost by the family. One belonged to a World War II soldier from Arkansas, another from Pennsylvania.

He met a veteran who served in Iraq and was burned over 70% of his body after his tank knocked over an explosive device. This veteran gave him three lockers of his military items. He also received the uniform from the grandfather of a friend who was a field surgeon in Vietnam whom he interviewed. And the wife of the former commander of a Purple Heart chapter in New Jersey, whose meetings MacMillan began attending, gave him her husband’s Vietnamese service uniform and medals.

His collection also includes a rack of military jackets, spanning World War II to present. He has everything a soldier would have carried on D-Day, including 80 rounds of ammunition, a bayonet, a life jacket, a canteen, wire cutters, a first aid kit. It has dog tags, WWII ammunition boxes, rifle cleaner, language guides, helmets, books and magazine articles dating back over half a century.

Last year, her father, Doug MacMillan, spotted a man wearing a World War II cap while shopping at a local Target. He called his son, all excited.

“I said, ‘Dad, stay with him. I want to meet him, ”recalls the young MacMillan.

His father complied. Turns out the veteran Purple Heart recipient lives five minutes away. This led to a five hour meeting.

“He told me all these stories and showed me all these memories,” MacMillan said.

They remained good friends. The MacMillans recently invited the veteran to celebrate his 96th birthday. MacMillan and his mother baked a cake and frosted it to look like the unit patch he wore during World War II.

MacMillan, a member of the West Chester golf team, also befriended former team coach Edwin Cottrell, a World War II fighter pilot.

“He and Adam had great discussions about WWII and history,” current coach Harry Hammond said. “He’s just a great boy.”

MacMillan also shared his interest with his teammates. At the NCAA Tournament this year, MacMillan gave his golf team captain military captain’s bars to wear for good luck.

Majoring in marketing with a minor in history, MacMillan said he hopes to turn his military interest into a career, perhaps working in marketing for a veterans organization or the US military.

His connection with the Best Defense Foundation began during the pandemic. While a student at Princeton High School, he began watching the foundation’s online interviews with World War II veterans. This is how he got in touch with Malone, the policeman who had recommended him to take part in the trip to Normandy.

In preparation, MacMillan researched the names of over 30 West Chester men and women who were killed in World War II. He wanted to know if there were any who were buried in Normandy and found one, David J. Gerrits, who had also been a student of West Chester.

Gerrits was shot down over the English Channel and his body has not been found, but his name appears on a wall of the missing at the Brittany American Cemetery. MacMillan found the wall and took a picture.

Along with Malone and Gibson, MacMillan rode in a World War II jeep to the very beach where Gibson landed in 1944.

The trio also excavated the grave of New Jersey soldier Carl B. Westerberg, who was killed in World War II and awarded a Purple Heart. This Purple Heart found its way to MacMillan, and he was asked to place it on Westerberg’s grave. MacMillan taped it to the top of the headstone, took a picture and returned it.

Gibson said he was grateful for his young companion. MacMillan pushed him into a wheelchair, spread his clothes and helped him with daily chores.

“There’s no better boy than Adam,” Gibson said.

MacMillan said he was the one impressed.

“Bob deserves the world,” MacMillan said. “All the guys and women we picked up, … because of what they did for us. I wouldn’t have what I have now if it wasn’t for them.

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