This West Chester University student has amassed a military history collection worthy of a museum
Adam MacMillan, a student at West Chester University, has studied US military history since eighth grade.
It began when he learned that his three great-uncles had fought in World War II, and his passion grew as he met other veterans, heard their stories, and happily received their military uniforms and items they wore on battlefields. The aspiring sophomore has amassed a museum-worthy collection of hundreds of pieces in his basement in Cranbury Township, NJ.
Then that story came to life in a new way last month as he sat next to 98-year-old D-Day veteran Bob Gibson in a cemetery in Normandy, France, for American soldiers who died during World War II .
The 19-year-old put his hand on Gibson’s back and began to cry.
“I could see myself in Bob,” MacMillan said, recounting last week’s experience.
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And for a good reason. Gibson was about the same age as MacMillan when he boarded the Normandy beach and took part in the invasion that would lead to the defeat of Germany. He was also about the same height and weight as MacMillan. They even wear the same shoe size. He had trouble imagining being 19 years old and fighting in World War II.
The two were part of a group embarking on an eight-day trip created by the Best Defense Foundation, a California-based nonprofit founded by former NFL football player Donnie Edwards, taking World War II veterans back to the battlefields brings on which they have served. The veterans are joined by young volunteers like MacMillan who serve as personal attendants. This year’s trip, funded by donations, coincided with the 78th anniversary of D-Day on June 6th. Gibson, a resident of Hunterdon County, NJ who was interviewed by NBC Nightly News While there, he was among 28 veterans who left, seven of whom had attended D-Day.
“I was just so happy to be a part of that experience for him,” MacMillan said.
It’s critical, the teenager said, that his generation takes pride in history, learns from it and remembers the sacrifices made by military personnel.
“If not, all is lost,” he said.
Michael Malone, 42, of Wall Township, NJ, a police officer and volunteer with the Best Defense Foundation, said such intense interest and a young person like MacMillan was extraordinary.
“Adam knows more about World War II than anyone I know,” he said. “If I have a question, I’ll call him.”
MacMillan said his interest began when his class was studying the Holocaust, and he asked his father about their relatives’ involvement in the war. His father produced a bag of German war medals taken from fallen or captured soldiers. They were brought back by one of the teenager’s great-uncles, his father told him.
He would learn that two great-uncles, Raymond and Richard, had served in the Army during World War II while another, Elmer, was a chef on a DropShip in the Pacific. His grandfather was a soldier in the Army Air Corps after World War II, and another great-uncle, a Marine, served in Vietnam. This uncle gave him a collection of 300 photos he took there.
He began searching online for military memorabilia and frequented flea markets, where he spotted a few Purple Hearts that had been given away or lost by family. One belonged to a World War II soldier from Arkansas, another from Pennsylvania.
He met a veteran serving in Iraq who burned over 70% of his body after his tank ran over an IED. This veteran gave him three chests with his military items. He was also given the uniform of the grandfather of a friend who was a field surgeon in Vietnam whom he interviewed. And the wife of the former commander of a Purple Heart union association in New Jersey, whose meetings MacMillan began to attend, presented him with her husband’s Vietnam service uniform and medals.
His collection also includes a range of military jackets from WWII to the present day. He has everything a soldier would have carried on D-Day including 80 rounds of ammunition, a bayonet, a life preserver, a canteen, wire cutters, a first aid kit. He has dog tags, WWII ammo boxes, a gun cleaner, phrasebooks, helmets, books and magazine articles dating back more than half a century.
Last year his father, Doug MacMillan, spotted a man wearing a World War II cap while shopping at a local Target. Excited, he called his son.
“I said, ‘Dad, stay with him. I want to meet him,’” the younger MacMillan recalled.
His father complied. It turns out the veteran, a Purple Heart recipient, lives five minutes away. This led to a five-hour meeting.
“He told me all these stories and showed me all these memorabilia,” MacMillan said.
They have remained good friends. The MacMillans recently hosted the veteran to celebrate his 96th birthday. MacMillan and his mother made a cake and glazed it to resemble the unit badge he wore during World War II.
MacMillan, a member of the West Chester golf team, has also struck up a friendship with former team coach Edwin Cottrell, a World War II fighter pilot.
“He and Adam had great discussions about WWII and history,” said current coach Harry Hammond. “He’s just a great kid.”
MacMillan has also shared his interest with teammates. During this year’s NCAA tournament, MacMillan gave his golf team captain a military captain’s tie to wear for good luck.
A marketing major with a history minor, MacMillan said he hopes to turn his military interest into a career, possibly working in marketing for a veterans’ organization or the US Army.
His association with the Best Defense Foundation began during the pandemic. As a student at Princeton High School, he began watching the Foundation’s online interviews with WWII veterans. This is how he came into contact with Malone, the policeman who had recommended that he take part in the Normandy trip.
In preparation, MacMillan researched the names of more than 30 West Chester men and women who were killed in World War II. He wanted to know if any were buried in Normandy and found one, David J. Gerrits, who had also been a student at West Chester.
Gerrits was shot down over the English Channel and his body was not recovered, but his name appears on a missing person’s wall in Brittany American Cemetery. MacMillan found the wall and took a picture.
Along with Malone and Gibson, MacMillan drove in a WWII jeep to the very beach where Gibson landed in 1944.
The trio also searched the grave of New Jersey soldier Carl B. Westerberg, who was killed in World War II and received a Purple Heart. This Purple Heart found its way to MacMillan and he was asked to place it on Westerberg’s grave. MacMillan taped it to the top of the tombstone, took a picture, and mailed it back.
Gibson said he was grateful for his young companion. MacMillan pushed him into a wheelchair, spread out his clothes, and helped him with daily chores.
“There’s no better boy than Adam,” Gibson said.
MacMillan said he’s the one in awe.
“Bob deserves the world,” said MacMillan. “All the men and women we took back… because of what they did for us. Without her, I wouldn’t have what I have now.”
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