Every community has a past. Don Thomas has dug up some moving relics from Naples' history — and, by proxy, unearthed some personal childhood memories he and his wife shared in Seymour, Ind., during World War II.
A metal detector operator extraordinaire, Thomas, 83, and his wife of sixty years, Mary, 80, are donating their historical local find to the Museum of Military Memorabilia at the Naples Airport. It is a first-of-its-kind rare collection found off local beaches.
From about 1995 to 2005, Thomas painstakingly hunted and saved what now have been verified as .50 caliber and .30 caliber bullets and casings fired from machine guns over the Gulf of Mexico. Gregory Garcia, vice president for the Museum of Military Memorabilia in Naples, verified the materials. The ammunition was fired during air training exercises for jungle warfare during World War II, mostly by soldiers who came from the Midwest to Naples to train because of this area's subtropical similarities to war fighting grounds.
Garcia called the find "amazing."
"We have not seen this here before, and it is emotional evidence that links the incredible sacrifices and war efforts of this area, and the men and women who fought for our freedom, many who died," Garcia said during a meeting last week with Thomas and his wife at the Museum.
For Don and Mary Thomas, the years of nightly evaluation of Don's finds in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico brought back memories of a boy and girl living three miles apart, whose childhoods, separated by a river, never crossed paths.
There were fly-overs and back-outs, said Mary, who was 7 years old at the time.
"Freeman Airfield was five miles from our farm in Seymour, and the war planes would fly over our house at night and swoosh down toward the soldiers on the ground, for training. I still remember the noise," she said. "And every night after supper, as my mother canned fruits, vegetables and meats, using the sugar she got by trading coffee ration coupons with my aunt, my father sat by the big radio listening to Lowell Thomas report on the war. We always had to be so quiet when that was happening.
"And we collected milkweeds that were used to make floating devices as life jackets for the soldiers."
There was fear, her husband says, during those years. He reflected on his life on a farm as a 10-year-old, milking cows before school, harvesting tomatoes after. He remembers his family donating pots and pans for the war effort.
"We also raised hogs," he said. "One day, when Pearl Harbor erupted, I ran scared into the woods and asked my father if they were going to kill us, too. He reassured me.
"One time we heard about German POWs that escaped and were found hiding in the bushes right in Seymour by our farm. I saw POWs under armed guard," he said. His brother, Clifford, was sent to war and came home with horrific stories of what he experienced in Germany.
Lois Bolin spearheads a local group called "Naples Spirit of '45," an offshoot of the national group "Keep the Spirit of '45 Alive" whose mission, Bolin said, is to "connect the community and youth to the values of the greatest generation who preserved our freedom and rebuilt our shattered world after World War II."
Bolin added that this beach discovery by Thomas "will help raise awareness of the role of Florida and the town of Naples during World War II. Very few people know about the Marines off the coast here. There was a watch every night on the Naples pier to watch for enemy submarines."
This activity here eventually led to the second population boom after the war, Bolin said.
"World War II is critical to the history of Naples," she said.
Bolin added that, in August, Florida will be recognized with a congressional proclamation, the first state in the country to receive such an honor, to recognize the Spirit of '45 and the "greatest generation."
The stories turned up happy memories, too.
Standing to leave the museum, Don took Mary's hand in his, and reflected back to when he was 21, living in Seymour, and drove the five miles down to the bridge crossing over the White River. It was 1951, when he met Mary for the first time. A blind date.
Mary was 18. It was love at first sight. They married two years later just before Don was sent overseas, drafted into the Korean War, where he trained for two years.
Garcia shook Don's hand after handling several of the nearly 50 bullets the Thomases donated.
"We will need your information," he told Don and Mary. "We will want to make a plaque to accompany the display."
The couple looked at each other and smiled with a love that long ago crossed that river that ran between them.