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A rush of visitors pays respects at Florida's Navy SEALs museum

FORT PIERCE — The boy pressed his nose against the museum case, staring at the World War II diving mask and guns. "Is that the real stuff?" he asked. "Is that what the Navy SEALs used?"

His dad laughed. "Oh, they got newer stuff now, buddy."

"But those are real, right?"

Joseph Thomas, 4, had been begging his parents to take him to see "the SEAL stuff" for months. But they kept driving by the beachfront museum, promising him "another day."

Then, Saturday night, Joseph was watching TV with his parents when he heard about what had happened to his heroes. "Their helicopter got shot down and it crashed," he said. "They were the ones who went to get that bad guy, bin Laden. He blowed up those towers."

Joseph was sad the SEALs had died. He wanted to know how they had trained, see their weapons, climb in their boat.

So on Tuesday, while the bodies of the 22 SEALs killed in Afghanistan were shipped back to Dover, Del., and the president mourned the largest loss of the Navy's most elite team, Joseph's parents finally took him to the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum — where dozens of other families had flocked to say thank you and leave flowers at the black marble memorial.

"We've been busy ever since they got bin Laden," said curator Ruth McSween. Visits have nearly doubled this summer, with more than 12,000 people coming from around the world to celebrate the SEALs.

But on Tuesday the mood was somber. The sacrifice was sinking in.

"It's very emotional, being here today," said Mary Jane Sheridan, wiping her eyes. She and her husband had come from Rockland County, N.Y. "Dear God, help the men who have to be brave enough to volunteer to do what they do."

• • •

Housed in a single-story barracks, set behind a chain-link fence, the museum is small and nondescript. You would drive right past it on A1A — if it weren't for the helicopter and boats in the yard.

The Navy's first "frogman" unit was born in this building, in 1943. More than 6,000 men trained in the nearby Atlantic to be amphibious fighters. When Fort Pierce closed in 1946, the Navy moved its newest unit to Virginia.

In the 1980s, a group of Navy veterans began gathering artifacts from the Sea, Air and Land teams and collecting donations. They opened the 3,500-square-foot museum in November 1985. It is staffed mostly by volunteer veterans, funded through admission and souvenir sales, plus private bequests.

Donations have nearly doubled this summer. People have sent thank yous from London, Paris, Brazil.

"Dear soldiers," wrote a fifth-grader from Pennsylvania. "I'm only 10, but I'm old enough to realize how hard you work. … If you can, will you please send me a picture of you? But it's okay if you can't."

• • •

The boy led his parents through the museum, past mannequins of Seabees in sailor hats, past antique oxygen tanks, rubber flippers, a torn Japanese flag. He saw photos of soldiers storming the beaches at Normandy, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He stopped at the picture of divers in decontamination suits, helping the Apollo 11 astronauts out of the ocean.

"Wow," Joseph said.

In the back room, he watched a short film: muscular guys wriggling beneath barbed wire, crawling on the bottom of a 12-foot-deep pool.

He learned that, over the last 60 years, 48,000 men have trained for the elite force, but only 8,000 have succeeded.

After he had studied all the displays, seen the videos, even climbed aboard an ATV like the SEALs drive in Afghanistan, the boy ran outside, into the rain.

He gripped a machine gun inside the "enemy pillbox." He laughed at a boat whose bow was painted like a shark. Then he walked to the monument and saw all the flowers: rain-bruised roses, droopy daisies with a laminated card of Jesus, white lilies flanked by a plastic flag.

The boy ran his finger across the etched marble. "What's it say?"

"Those are all the SEALs who died during all the wars," said his dad.

Above him, his heroes formed a tall crescent: five panels of names, 96 seamen during World War II and Korea; 49 more in Vietnam and the Cold War. Desert Storm and Global War on Terror losses already cover three sections: 43 men. Three more panels are blank.

Plenty of space to add the 22 new names. With way too much room left over before they run out.

National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum

Location: 3300 N. Highway A1A in Fort Pierce.

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

Admission: $8 for adults, $4 for children 6 to 12.

Contact: Call (772) 595-5845 or go to www.NavySEALmuseum.com.

A rush of visitors pays respects at Florida's Navy SEALs museum 08/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 11, 2011 12:32pm]

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