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Armed Forces Military Museum's Vietnam diorama dedication ceremony

Museum exhibit is step into a Vietnam jungle during the war

As the steam envelopes you, the sweet chirp of crickets is interrupted by the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire. A helicopter whirs above.

Deep in the jungle, the enemies — the snakes, the mosquitoes, the Viet Cong — lurk.

Welcome to Vietnam, the diorama.

On Saturday, the nonprofit Armed Forces Military Museum in Largo, a 35,000-square-foot vault of authentic fighting machines and paraphernalia, officially opens its newest wartime exhibit, Vietnam.

Through the use of sound, a fog machine, mannequins and military equipment, the new exhibit depicts the Indo-China conflict that lasted from 1959 to 1975 when American forces tried to thwart the communist takeover of South Vietnam.

A dedication ceremony begins at noon with the posting of U.S. colors, the Last Patrol re-enactment by the Suncoast Vietnam Veterans, and the playing of taps.

The keynote speaker is retired Rear Adm. LeRoy Collins Jr., executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.

A special admission price is $5 that day.

The $15,000 exhibit was the brainchild of John Piazza, founder and executive director of the museum. Dave Marino serves as artistic director.

"We did it all ourselves and tried to make it as realistic as possible," Marino said.

He and the staff have erected a life-size replica of a portion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was a network of secret jungle paths that ran from North to South Vietnam and through the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. It was the main transportation and supply route used by the communist forces.

Along this trail, a pair of Viet Cong soldiers, dramatically up-lit in dense foliage, await to ambush.

American soldiers ride in a light cargo vehicle while others transport an injured comrade through a dark, dank swamp.

One can almost feel the mosquitoes bite.

Display cases wallpapered with old black and white photos from the era feature Vietnam and American memorabilia.

Visitors will see items like a rice bag, a rustic handmade rifle, field sandals and Vietnamese cigarettes.

The American display contains a gas mask and a field test kit for chemicals such as Agent Orange. There are water testing tablets, insect repellent, foot powder, rolling papers, prophylactics and a machete.

A firebase, designed to provide backup support for infantry, contains long range artillery and ammunition cases.

In a tower above, a member of the military police keeps a night watch.

But the Vietnam diorama is merely the latest chapter in the story of freedom told at the museum.

It begins with displays of beautiful dress uniforms from all the branches of the military. Visitors then journey through a World War I trench and onto the replicated deck of a Japanese aircraft carrier, where they'll view footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor and model ships from the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!

From there it's on to the South Pacific, a D-day landing at Utah Beach, a French village, a German outpost and the Korean War. The exhibits are enhanced with simulations of fog, the sounds of planes, tanks and gunfire, and other effects.

Marino said the museum, which opened in August 2008, has a unique mission: to educate while entertaining in the styles of Busch Gardens, Disney and Universal Studios.

"We want to have an impact on the children," he said. "We want to give them a greater understanding of the wars and what our American soldiers went through."

Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at treeves@tampabay.rr.com.

If you go

What: The dedication ceremony for the new Vietnam diorama at Armed Forces Military Museum. The facility is a 35,000-square-foot nonprofit museum featuring dioramas and special collections from America's wars.

When: noon Saturday.

Where: 2050 34th Way N., off Ulmerton Road in Largo, inside a newly renovated building in an industrial park.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Allow two hours for the tour.

Special admission Saturday: $5.

Regular admission: $8 adults; $5 for children 7 to 12. Free for military (with ID) and children 6 and under. Simulator rides are extra. One dollar coupon available online.

For more information: Visit www.armedforcesmuseum.com or call (727) 539-8371.

Museum exhibit is step into a Vietnam jungle during the war 01/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 3:13pm]

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