Deep in the trench, lanterns flicker as machine guns above fire away. "Rat-a-tat-tat." The sound of the diving Red Baron is suddenly heard as smoke pours in. The radio chatter intensifies. In the distance, the rumble of tanks begins.
Created as a living experience of history, Largo's new Armed Forces Military Museum is set to open Aug. 16. The 35,000-square-foot museum features lifelike displays and engages multiple senses with theatrical lighting, unusual artifacts, projected video and well-placed sound effects.
"I was saddened to learn that the younger generation doesn't know much of our history beyond the Civil War," said museum founder and president John J. Piazza Sr. "My teenage granddaughter didn't know who Hitler was. The museum is designed to give people a sense of events … yet keep their attention."
Piazza began collecting military memorabilia as a young man when he was given old dummy hand grenades and spent brass shells. As his collection of memorabilia grew, he displayed some of it with a mobile museum. He took 16 displays to local schools and public gatherings.
Eventually, the collection filled multiple warehouses. When he sold his health care business three years ago, Piazza was able to focus more on his memorabilia.
"I turned over my collection to the museum, which is a nonprofit foundation," Piazza said. "It's been a dream to display this collection."
The Armed Forces Military Museum is one of the largest collections of its kind in Florida not funded by the government.
One of the dramatic dioramas is the bombing of Pearl Harbor, set on the flight deck of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi.
"We got actual blueprints of the Akagi," said creative director David Marino. "It is all built to scale. We have to be accurate."
Actual Japanese and American black-and-white film (now video) footage is projected onto a multistory screen. Sound effects of incoming planes and dropping bombs are interspersed with choreographed music. Four model ships from the movie set of Tora! Tora! Tora! are in the simulated water.
"People who have seen this say they feel like they are right there experiencing the Pearl Harbor attack," Piazza said.
Equipment, uniforms and weapons representing U.S. military history from the Korean War to the present day are on display and more scenes are planned for the future.
Three unusual artifacts are a full service uniform of Saddam Hussein (the only one known to be in the United States, according to the museum), a Ford M151 experimental utility truck and a DUKW amphibian landing craft from World War II.
"Almost everything is authentic," museum employee Jim Fallin said. "The few reproductions are marked as such."
At the moment, the dioramas depict scenes from only World Wars I and II. But the museum also has exhibits featuring U.S. military materiel from the Korean War to today. In the near future, those, too, will be incorporated into dioramas.
"We want to become a major destination for Tampa Bay for locals, tourists, Scouts and school groups. We're building an attraction that is family friendly and family affordable."