War was all around Vietnam’s Thua Thien province near the demilitarized zone in 1971, when a force struck Charlie Robertson he had never before faced.

An electrical storm short-circuited 18 claymores and multiple trip flares inside the perimeter of FSB Tennessee, a support base for the US military in Vietnam during the war. While out in the field, a lightning bolt zapped Robertson leaving him unconscious for 20 minutes. 

He got up, and later that night, he was behind a 155 howitzer, firing away on a mission.

The former artilleryman, who served from 1971 to 1973 that included nine months in Vietnam, now talks about the incident nonchalantly. He said there were “some funny things” coupled with a lot of “horrendous” things he witnessed over the course of his military career.

“I wouldn’t take a million dollars for my military experience,” he said. “But there is, you know, the sadness, all the craziness and blood and guts.”

Joining the Army at the age of 18, Robertson knew what he was getting into. Robertson, a lifelong Fort Worth resident, heard stories about the Army life and wars all his life.

His father, Renno Robertson, served in the 2nd Infantry Division, which fought through the Battle of Bulge to march and liberate camps and towns of Germany in 1944 and 1945.

The end of World War II was within sight after the U.S. military stood victorious in the battle.

Nazi Germany launched an onslaught of more than 200,000 troops and about 1,000 tanks to regain terrotories it lost in the Western Front. About 75,000 American soldiers lost their lives in the battle. The battle resulted in the Allies being able to suppress the last German offensive.

“To me, they were called the Greatest Generation for a reason,” Robertson said. “They went and did their job, and they came home and felt like nothing happened.”

If You Go

WHAT: Military Museum of Fort Worth

HOURS:
Thursday – Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Sunday – 12 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

WHERE:
1726 Green Oaks Road
Fort Worth TX 76116
Ridgmar Mall Lower Level
West Entrance between Dillard’s and Penney’s

Admission:
Free to all who serve or have served in the U. S. Military and children under 10 years of age that are accompanied by an adult. All other visitors are 10.00 per person.

*Special Memorial Day programming from 10 a.m. Monday, May 31

INFO: https://www.militarymuseumfortworth.org/

His father never told him how many in the enemy lines he killed during the war. But he said his father mentioned some of the friends he lost. The sacrifices they and his father made to protect the nation inspired him to join the Army, too.

He has plenty of his father’s military tales to tell along with his own.

To share those stories with more people, he donated his and his father’s uniforms, pinned with medals and ensembles, and a few other memorabilia to the Military Museum of Fort Worth, the only free-standing museum dedicated to showcasing the history of servicemembers in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

The museum recently expanded into a larger location inside Ridgmar Mall that enables it to display more artifacts from the local military community.

Increasing its capacity and reach, the museum now hopes to become a major military history destination in North Texas and beyond.

The museum is a way to preserve history, so people won’t forget the sacrifices the military made fighting for the nation’s freedom, Robertson said.

The museum currently houses more than 2,500 artifacts, each associated with individual military members and committed to sharing stories related to them. And there’s more room to grow.

On the frontlines 

The concept for the museum stemmed from numerous informal meetings between a group of military history collectors in Fort Worth. The group already had hundreds of artifacts its members collected as hobbies over the years.

In 2008, Tyler Alberts, the museum’s current executive director, leased a 1,000-square-foot space in Fort Worth’s Cultural District to exhibit the collectors’ combined collection.

The collection grew steadily in the past decade and turned into a formal museum. It relocated to the Stockyards area in 2017, where it had been until the pandemic resulted in a decline in visitors and threatened a negative balance sheet. 

The museum needed to either shut down or move to a location that made more economical sense, Alberts said. The museum’s board members and staff – 10 in total – all work as volunteers. No one collects a salary.

“They got billions of dollars flying around this place. They’ll throw millions of dollars to almost any kind of organization for almost every reason you can think of,” Alberts said of Fort Worth.

He wishes more funds would flow to organizations that support military than what currently occurs, he said.

After a year of searching and setting up, the museum opened in early May at its new 11,000-square-foot location, 1888 Green Oaks Rd.

Trace Chinworth, board president for the museum, said the focus goes deeper than displaying uniforms. 

“What our emphasis from the beginning has been to tell the story behind that uniform or that artifact. We try to emphasize the people,” Chinworth said. “These were real folks, and they did real things. So, obviously the larger you are, the more stories.”

About 20 technical workers, from electricians, carpenters and painters, volunteered their time to create exhibits in the new location.

The board was able to allocate a budget of $60,000 for the relocation and the reopening.

“If we’re able to keep this operation as it is running and we can maybe pick up some sponsors, acquire more space, growth is definitely something that we hope for,” Chinworth said. “But we don’t want to try to do it all at once.”

Zone of action

Fort Worth and Tarrant County could do a better job of honoring the region’s military past, Alberts said.

Among other historical instances, he pointed out the “coolest but least-known history” of Camp Bowie. Camp Bowie in Fort Worth was responsible for training more than 100,000 soldiers and based the Army’s 36th Infantry Division during World War I. The spending from the military at that period supplemented Fort Worth’s local economy, which was suffering from an epidemic and financial downturn.

Now filled with retail and entertainment venues, Camp Bowie has largely forgotten its history, Alberts said.

Juxtaposing rare aerial photographs of Camp Bowie, Tyler Alberts discusses growth points of the area through the years. (Neetish Basnet | Fort Worth Report)

“I wish our community would be just as fond of or have an affinity for their military heritage as they do for their oil, cultural and cowboy heritage,” Alberts said. “Because, I think it played just as important a role, if not more important role, than anything else.”

A majority of all artifacts in the museum belong to former military members from Fort Worth and nearby areas.

Ultimately, the museum will become a high-quality resource center for local military history, Alberts predicted.

The museum plans to partner with area school districts to provide periodic tours to students.

In recent weeks, homeschooled students have shown great interest in the museum, swarming in to learn and work on their end-of-year history projects in large numbers, Alberts said.

The museum also holds mobile exhibits at TCU, the University of Texas-Arlington and Tarrant County College several times a year. On special occasions, the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo and BNSF Railway collaborate with the museum to display exhibits at its facilities.

“We’re generating interest among the public,” Chinworth said. “We want to have the people come in and look, have people tell other people about us. And frankly, I hope we can bring in enough.”

Marching on

In its new space, the museum can now host larger exhibitions and showpieces. Included among many of the new additions: an airline cockpit injection capsule and a life-size World War I trench that gives visitors a sense of what it might have been like during combat.

A realistic World War I trench display in the Military Museum of Fort Worth. (Neetish Basnet | Fort Worth Report)

The additional square footage also allows the museum to welcome more visitors.

The museum experienced its highest-earning weekend ever when it generated over $750 in sales in mid-May. The amount is still “sad,” but an optimistic sign, Alberts said.

“We are pleased with the turnout so far and encouraged that it’s only going to get bigger. So that’s good,” Tyler said.

Almost half of all artifacts at the museum were donated or loaned by area veterans or their family members. Inquiries have also been increasing recently from individuals wanting to exhibit personal military-related items at the museum 

Jan Merrill, a supporter of the museum, left more than $50,000 to the museum when she died two years ago. Her husband, Clifford Merrill, was a three-war veteran who fought in the Battle of Normandy. His uniform and photographs have been a part of the museum’s collection since 2010.   

A portion of the military library will be dedicated in honor of the Merrills.

Fort Worth and the nearby areas boast a big military presence. The local military community has been the biggest proponent in the success of the museum, Alberts said. 

Tarrant County is home to 108,329 veterans, according to U.S. Census data.

The Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in west Fort Worth consists of more than 10,000 military and civilian employees working for 40 different commands. 

Various local organizations also regularly organize events to recognize the military community. Roll Call hosts a monthly appreciation luncheon at Birchman Baptist Church Family Activity Center near Ridgmar Mall that draws in about 300 former and current service members and their supporters each time. Alberts maintains a good relationship with the group.

As the museum continues on its quest of providing “a healthy understanding of the military,” he said sticking together for the military community is a necessary step since most others won’t nowadays.

“Everybody enjoys Memorial Day Weekend. We love going to the lake and have cookouts and all that,” Alberts said. “I think that’s all great. But, if at some point during that weekend, you can just find the name of a guy, or Google to find out somebody that may have died in action, and just give them a quick thought or a thank you while (we) enjoy this day – that’s all the day was set aside for.”

Neetish Basnet is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at neetish.basnet@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Neetish Basnet

Neetish Basnet is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He has previously worked as a business reporter at Fort Worth Business Press and Dallas Business Journal. He graduated from University...

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