Philadelphia museum honoring diverse WWII vets fights to stay open

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Benjamin Melvin Berry smiles as he holds his smartphone pointing to a black-and-white picture.

The photo is of six young African American men dressed in crisply-ironed Army uniforms. One of them is Berry smiling while on a break from an 18-month tour of service in Europe during World War II.

The 98-year-old had just graduated from Abington High School when he enlisted in the Army.

"I was sent a draft notice back in 1943 to go into the Army," he recalled. "I was 18. Gung ho. Needed a little excitement."

Though he sought excitement, Berry says he told his friends he was enlisting for his country. Either way, he never hesitated to serve even with segregation.

"The outfit, the company, the area we trained in was all Black," he said.

It was the reality for Black veterans of World War II. Their stories are shared at Aces Museum in Germantown. Situated at Germantown Avenue and E. Price Street, it's an unassuming building that doubles as a medical office. Dr. A.V. Hankins runs both.

"You'll see artifacts here that are nowhere else," said Hankins, who is the museum director.

All of the displays are focused on the stories of Black and brown service members in World War II.

"This is amazing stories that people need to learn," said Hankins.

But as important as the stories are, they're in danger of going unheard as the museum struggles to stay afloat while dodging developers who have their eyes on Germantown.

"The last (developer) said you don't know how much money we're going to give you," she said. "(I said) It doesn't matter!"

Hankins says the building is too precious to sell given what this building once was: a USO for Black soldiers during World War II.

The space upstairs, Parker Hall, was used for dances and entertainment. Hankins and the team renovated the space so that it could be rented out for events. Right now, though, Parker Hall isn't accessible because of an unstable stairway.

"My life is to preserve Parker Hall so that for all time the children know this is important," she said, adding that she combines the lessons from Aces Museum with information to inspire children to a better pathway in life.

As Hankins works on repairs that would reopen Parker Hall, she hopes to get the building registered as an historic place. Doing so would preserve stories of service members like Berry whose unit went from building "bath sites" for White soldiers to fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.

"We weren't trained actually for that military maneuver, but we did the best we could," he said.

He and so many others have stories of sacrifice that the museum hopes will never be forgotten.

"Realize what's here," he said, "and what we went through to get to this point in life."

Aces Museum, which opened in 2000, is hoping to generate interest and income with its tours offered in person and online. The museum, at 5801 Germantown Avenue, is open Monday- Thursday from 12pm-4pm.

Virtual tour: https://www.tixr.com/groups/acesveteransmuseum/events/aces-museum-virtual-tour-1-32101

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Acesmuseuminternational/

Website: https://acesmuseum.online
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