Armed Forces History Museum in Largo holds vast collection of military collectibles

Military memorabilia at the Armed Forces History Museum tells the stories of our battles.
Published February 10 2012
Updated February 11 2012

LARGO — Nadine Piazza's home life may have been a little unusual, thanks to her father's penchant for collecting military items.

She remembers as a teenager sneaking out to the garage and taking her dad's vintage World War II jeep for a spin.

She also recalls "always having a lot of artillery in the den,'' she said.

Until, that is, a fire destroyed the family home in 1980.

"The fire was caused by something electric, but because of the artillery exploding, (the firefighters) were concerned about getting into the house. It burned to the ground,'' she said.

After the fire, her father, John Piazza Sr., began storing his military collectibles in a warehouse off Ulmerton Road. It grew so much that in 2008 he turned the warehouse into the Armed Forces Military Museum.

Last Wednesday Piazza, 73, and Nadine, 41, who serves as the museum's director of operations, announced they were dropping the word "Military" from the facility's name and changing it to the Armed Forces History Museum.

"We have decided to give the museum a new name, with emphasis on history, to help us expand education and outreach programs in the community,'' Piazza said.

"It is a major issue out there that our children are not educated about what's gone on after the Civil War," he said. "I have spoken to children from (elementary age) through 12th grade and even ROTC students, and so many have no idea of what has gone on with Hitler, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and we believe this will help us continue making inroads.''

At a press conference announcing the new name, Piazza also put to rest talk about moving the museum to the Harborview Center in downtown Clearwater. He said he has decided not to pursue a lease there due to "horrendous repairs we'd have to make.''

But the current location, at the end of 34th Way N, is far from ideal.

"We believe it would enhance the museum to have a more visible space. We will absolutely keep a new site on the front burner,'' he said.

Piazza, who served five years in the Marine Corps Reserves, first realized his interest in military memorabilia more than 58 years ago, after a former girlfriend's father gave him a World War I German mortar/grenade as a gift.

His collection now includes a green service uniform worn by Saddam Hussein, found outside a palace by an Army sergeant in 2003, as well as 100,000 other items, including weapons, from bows and arrows to sticky bombs and flamethrowers; uniforms, from Korean War fatigues to camouflage sniper suits, and vehicles, like Patton tanks.

His museum gets funds to operate from admission fees, memberships and donations. More than 100,000 visitors have walked through the door in the past 3 1/2 years.

With each passing year, the museum receives more attention, both from additions to the collection and the people who visit.

• In September 2010, the family of Marine Corps 1st Lt. Baldomero Lopez, a Korean War hero and Tampa native who received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his work protecting his troops in Incheon, donated his uniforms and personal correspondence.

• In January 2011, a private donor gave the museum a Russian MiG-21, a supersonic fighter jet displayed near the front of the facility.

• On July 5, 2011, Gov. Rick Scott chose the museum as his venue for a press conference to sign pieces of legislation to benefit active military, veterans and military families.

However, it is clear that the museum's lack of visibility, as well as lack of auditorium space, presents challenges, according to Nadine. The family, which includes Piazza's wife, Rosemary, and six other adult children, would consider moving the museum to a nearby city.

"All of Tampa Bay is near and dear to our heart,'' she said. "We are open to any option and any partnership.''

Teresa Brydon, economic development manager for the city of Largo, hopes the museum will stay put.

"The city wants the museum to stay in Largo. We'll help them in any way we can,'' Brydon said. "We'll help them network to organizations and businesses that can provide support and more exposure. We'd also provide assistance in locating a different building in Largo that best suits their needs.

"Whatever we can do, we'll do,'' she said.

Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or [email protected]