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Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library provides Purple Heart Room exhibit

By Staff | Dec 6, 2018

After hearing the news of President George H.W. Bush passing and losing one of their own, The Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library decided to honor both men in a new display.

Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library Director of Operations Missi Lastra said they found out that Roy Leo passed away during the early morning hours of Friday, Nov. 30, and then later found out that President Bush passed away that night.

“They were both World War II veterans, both fliers and they both passed away on the same day. We felt that was significant to lose two such great leaders. One on a national level and one locally on the same day with similar backgrounds as far as World War II veterans and being pilots,” Lastra said.

George H.W. Bush served as the 41st president from 1989 to 1993. Born on June 12, 1924, he enlisted in the Armed Forces on his 18th birthday. He was the youngest pilot in the Navy when he received his wings. Bush flew 58 combat missions during World War II. In January 1945 he married Barbara Pierce and they had six children.

According to the WhiteHouse.org, Bush served two terms as a Representative to Congress from Texas. He was appointed to the Ambassador to the United Nations; Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People’s Republic of China and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1980, Bush was chosen as a running mate, Vice President, by Ronald Reagan. In 1988 Bush won the Republican nomination for president.

Leo served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam during a 36-year career as a Navy aviator.

“He is our own local hero and part of the family here at the Military Museum. We have an exhibit here for him of things that he has donated to us,” she said.

Those items include such things as his uniform, helmet and his medals.

Leo’s awards include the Naval Reserve Meritorious Medal (four awards); the Armed Forces Reserve Medal (two awards); the Distinguished Flying Cross; a Purple Heart and numerous other ribbons and medals from the American government and the Philippines.

“He was an inspiration. A great man who wanted to help people. He would pretty much do anything for anybody. Anybody who knew him just felt a deep connection for him. He just cared for people,” Lastra said.

The funeral for Leo will be held today, Dec. 7, at Coral Ridge Funeral Home & Cemetery, 1630 SW Pine Island Road. Visitation begins at 10 a.m., followed by graveside service at noon. A memorial reception will follow at 1:30 p.m. at the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library.

Lastra said they will serve some snacks, and many people who knew him will share stories of Leo.

“We are his family. His neighbors are his family. His friends are his family. You will be hearing a lot of testimonials of his life and how he impacted others,” she said. “He served in three wars and went on to serve people in his daily life. He was 98 when he passed.”

Leo’s donated items, as well as artifacts related to Bush are located in the Purple Heart Room. Artifacts of President Bush’s life include a Naval yearbook – Slipstream – which shows the future president with his ensign class; a baseball bat signed by Bush when he captained the Yale baseball team, which advanced to the 1947 College World Series, and a signed photo and campaign ribbons that belonged to Leo Nadeau, who flew as Bush’s gunner on all but two of his attack missions.

The Purple Heart Room became a new addition at the museum after they received the Florida Memorial Purple Heart Traveling Wall from the Florida Chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

“We built an exhibit and a room around this memorial wall,” Lastra said.

The wall traveled the state of Florida for a few years before it stopped traveling and was placed in a storage facility. She said it was discussed that it was time for permanent placement, which is when the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library was approached.

“There is no price you can put on that. It is amazing what they created. We are very fortunate to be recipients of it,” Lastra said.

The traveling memorial was unveiled on Purple Heart Day in front of about 400 people, 29 of whom were Purple Heart veterans.

The exhibit highlights every Florida solider that was killed in action from 2001 to 2014. Lastra said the memorial includes a Cape Coral hometown hero, Captain Daniel William Eggers, who was killed May 29, 2005 at the age of 29.

“The memorial wall is basically these placards of these pictures of these soldiers that were killed in action by year of death starting in 2001 and going through 2014. That would be considered the War on Terror,” Lastra said. “The Military Order of Purple Heart did their research and created this memorial wall to honor these soldiers that were killed in action.”

The Purple Heart Room also features a talking animated mannequin with George Washington’s “voice” explaining why he created the Purple Heart medal.

“It actually explains the Purple Heart Medal when you walk into the exhibit,” she said.

Although the room is available to the public right now, a ribbon cutting will be held on Jan. 25, followed by a gala the following day.