HOISINGTON — Mike and LaVetta Stephens operate The Museum of the Common Soldier out of their home in La Crosse. Since the 1970s, Mike has been collecting war memorabilia, and has amassed a collection that includes artifacts from the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and two Gulf Wars. On Saturday, Dec. 9, they brought several items of militaria to the Hoisington Public Library for a presentation about the Korean War.
Mike was 5 years old when the Korean Conflict erupted. His love of history began a few years later.
“There was a gentleman in Timken who didn’t mind showing seven, eight and nine-year-olds what he brought back with him from Germany, and that piqued my interest,” he said. “I started reading books about the second World War.”
The interesting thing about the Korean War, he said, is early on most of the equipment used by soldiers was left over from World War II.
“They caught us a little bit by surprise,” Stephens said. This was true not only for the United States, but also in Korea. South Korea started the war using World War II Japanese equipment. “When the north invaded, we came to their assistance and it wasn’t very long before they were carrying our weapons.”
Uniforms were also pretty much the same in the early years of Korea. Stephens brought two Ike jackets, one belonging to an Army veteran and one an Air Force veteran. Both were well decorated with Presidential citations and service ribbons from both World War II and Korea. The Air Force jacket was one of the first. In 1947, the U.S. Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force. Stephens said the first jackets, like the one in his collection, were essentially the same as the Army jacket, but died blue.
A selection of mortar shells and helmets illustrated the destructive power of shrapnel.
“Shrapnel is common to all wars since the American Revolution,” he said. “Shrapnel killed more men than any other weapon.”
Each helmet came from a different army, including the United States, Germany and Japan. Stephens told the story of one 1942 issue German helmet. It had been found in a trench just outside Vilnius, Lithuania. Stephen acquired it from a European veteran.
In 1945, the Russians were driving on Berlin. They trapped an entire German army in what was called the Courland Pocket. These troops were the ones meant to protect Berlin.
“They had a little bit of pride in their service,” he said. “They did not surrender to the Russians until the war was over and they were ordered to surrender.”
The damage to the helmet indicated a deadly mortar attack. What’s hard to determine, he said, is if the mortar landed at the man’s feet, with shrapnel flying up from the ground, or came from above, piercing the helmet without disturbing the rim.
“Regardless, this man never felt anything,” he added. “He definitely did not survive.”
Stephens also brought an intricately carved sword stand, acquired by a U.S. Army soldier from a burning building in Seoul in 1950. It had been on fire, the blackened edges on one side is proof.
“The veteran tried to clean it up, but stopped,” he explained. “This was fortunate because he didn’t disturb the patina very much.”
The piece had been part of a cabinet, and the soldier tore it off the cabinet and later brought it home. The carving is of a creature with a wolf’s body and a dragon’s head. Rich with symbolism, it is one of Stephens’s favorite pieces.
Most of the presentations the Stephens provides are about the Vietnam, Korea and World War II.
In 1978, he began collecting. While he prefers to acquire items from veterans, he also frequents militaria dealers and antique stores. Big militaria shows are also a draw. Each year they attend shows in Wichita and Hastings, Nebraska. They’ve also been to the MAX Show in Monroeville, Penn., and to Louisville, Ky. for the Show Of Shows.
Sharing their collection has taken the couple all over western Kansas, where they have been invited to talk at schools and various service clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, Daughters of the American Revolution, and youth organizations like the Boy Scouts.
At home, their museum is contained in several rooms in their home. Admission is free and open by appointment.