Treasure trove of U.S. Army artifacts in need of a home

FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- The U.S. Army has been on the front lines of history for well over two centuries, but in all that time, it has never had a national museum of its own to display a vast collection of artifacts. Now, there's a plan to change that.

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Chris Semancik
CBS News
Chris Semancik is chief of collections at the U.S. Army's Museum Support Center, a massive, climate-controlled facility at Fort Belvoir, Va. Here, the nearly 240-year history of the U.S. Army is preserved.

"Every piece of equipment that a soldier would carry or wear, from the Revolutionary War all the way up through current operations," Semancik says. "Boots, canteens, helmets."

One of the oldest pieces is the powder horn of Levi Gashet.

"He was a Minuteman and answered the call on April 19, 1775, to respond to the crisis at Lexington and Concord," Semancik explains. "It's quintessential Americana."

The collection is growing by the day and is now so large it includes 16,000 works of art, including three original Norman Rockwell oil paintings that he produced for the Army.

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Three original Norman Rockwell paintings are part of the archives.
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"Every other Rockwell focuses on the face of that American person from his hometown. This is every man that's fighting in World War II," Semancik says.

Hidden away in a far corner are some examples of Nazi propaganda taken from Germany so they would never be displayed again.

In 1945, when a U.S. soldier found a painting of Hitler depicted as a shining knight, he stabbed it with his bayonet.

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A U.S. soldier stabbed this painting of Hitler with his bayonet.
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"And that'll never be repaired," Semancik says. "That's part of its history. That's victory."

The collection includes lighthearted moments, like a painting of Bob Hope entertaining the troops, but there are also reminders of the horrors of war.

"It's a national treasure, and if we do not preserve this, the story of the sacrifice of what built this country would be lost, it would be marred and skewed," Semancik says.

If private fundraising succeeds, the Army hopes to open its new museum just outside Fort Belvoir in 2018. Until then, this collection will spend at least another four years in the dark.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.

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