It's World War I and all is not quiet on the Western front. • The sounds of explosions and gunfire envelop you. • A young soldier in a bunker tries to summon help with a field radio and carrier pigeon. • The night fog creeps into the trench, but you feel protected behind the walls of dirt and sandbags. • That is until you spot the Red Baron flying above.
The diorama is one of many portholes to the past at the Armed Forces Military Museum, a 35,000-square-foot treasure hunkered down in the middle of an industrial park in Largo .
This month, the museum is celebrating its first anniversary with free admission for school teachers on Saturdays in August. Lesson plans are posted on the museum Web site on the home page under news/events.
A birthday bash is planned for Saturday with special pricing, children's activities and other events.
"We want people to come out and learn what freedom is all about," said John Piazza, the museum's founder and president.
Piazza, 70, began collecting military memorabilia nearly 50 years ago after someone gave him a couple of grenades following his service in the Marines.
Since then he has amassed thousands of unusual relics and equipment from all over the world: a gas mask for a horse, a rare medal presented by Adolf Hitler, two chairs that belonged to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor), and a fleet of Japanese large-scale model ships from the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!
He's very proud of a recent purchase: a green uniform worn by Saddam Hussein.
"It's the only service uniform of Saddam in the country. It came right out of a dry cleaning bag," Piazza said.
As visitors weave their way through time, they'll experience the attack of Pearl Harbor from the flight deck of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi. They'll see Utah Beach after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, a French village in ruins, a paratrooper caught on a spire of the St. Mere Eglise church, and a German outpost.
Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Desert Storm and Iraq are represented, too, with additional dioramas under development.
The exhibits were created by artistic director David Marino, and staff.
"Almost everything was produced in-house," Marino said. "We used actual photos and blueprints to be as realistic as possible."
Some of the work was restorative.
He points to a green World War II torpedo that came "rusted out and with dead animals and garbage in it."
It was cleaned, sandblasted and repainted.
Now it is shiny and new with its small engine exposed to show the inner workings.
About 95 percent of the items on display are from Piazza's collection; the rest comes from other donors.
"As far as we know, this is the largest non-government funded military collection in Florida," Piazza said.
There are special displays of military dress uniforms, mines and grenades, weapons and rocket launchers.
An officers club, adorned with large vintage black and white photos, can be rented for special events.
For an additional charge, visitors can ride inside a simulator with 10 options including the deployment of an F-18 Hornet and a reconnaissance mission over Iwo Jima.
Piazza founded the Adult Care Group, a parent organization for 20 retirement centers located in Florida and Texas. He stored his growing collection of artifacts in a 48-foot trailer, which he'd haul around to the various centers. Other relics like tanks and such were stored in warehouses.
About eight years ago, after realizing his granddaughter in middle school didn't know who Hitler was, Piazza decided to create a permanent museum.
"Why keep it all boxed up?" he said.
He set up the museum as a nonprofit and donated his collection.
"I'm a patriot," he said. "I have a lot of pride in our country and want to make sure people realize what sacrifices our military personnel have made.
"I don't want people to take our country for granted."