It’s hard for Jerome O. Oxman to place a finger on when his love affair with military memorabilia started, but he’s decided it had to be sometime around 1945, right after he returned to the U.S. after serving three years in the Army during World War II.
He says he didn’t come across much fighting – he was stationed in the Persian Gulf -- and he almost embraced the attention he got from the Iranian women who couldn’t help but swoon over his striking resemblance to the shah.
“They thought I was either him, or in his family,” Oxman, 96, recalls with a laugh. “They would chase me around.”
Like most soldiers returning home from war at the time, he was of marrying age and ended up in Superior, Wis., not too far from his Duluth, Minn., birthplace. He fell in love with a woman named Miriam, and the two tied the knot.
They honeymooned in Vernon, Calif., just south of Los Angeles, and decided to move there.
But Oxman never lost his fascination with military history. He had a special affinity for B-29s, so he ordered an engine from Douglas Aircraft for $300.
“I was on their mailing list,” he says. “And you’d place a bid on any item you’d like to buy. I thought my bid was too low, but I got it.”
His collection grew. After working for a surplus company for 10 years as a buyer, he quit in 1961 and opened a military and aircraft store, which he named Oxman’s Surplus. The garage-sized store featured items like Army fatigues, boots, clothing and other equipment.
The community has an insatiable appetite for military information, he says, and the store was a hit. And it’s a two-way street. Oxman has the gift to gab about the military and goes on and on with customers.
“He gets a kick out of that,” his wife says.
The store grew for decades, from a modest garage to a 7,500-square-foot space filled with military apparel.
Eventually the couple decided to expand with a military museum to display some of the unique items Oxman collected over the years.
A year and a half ago, they financed and built a museum that holds thousands of items from World War I to the present. The memorabilia range from a crumpled Milky Way wrapper found in a dead German soldier’s hand to opium pipes used by Japanese kamikaze pilots during their missions.
One of Oxman’s prize possessions, he says, is a Norden bombsight, a device that enabled the Army Air Force planes to aim at targets. He bought one for $9.80 from a former employer, and The Los Angeles Times reports that it’s worth about $122,400 today. None of the pieces in the museum are for sale; the public gets in for free.
The museum sees about 100 visitors a month, comprised of mainly war enthusiasts. Miriam says she loves working there, and she calls her husband something of a celebrity. He’ll even sign an occasional picture for a guest, which adds to the museum’s family-business atmosphere, she says.
His wife drives him there every day and cooks Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, for visitors and hikers who want to get a true taste of what it’s like to be in the military.
In what is hardly a ringing endorsement, Miriam says, “I think I tried them twice. I can tell you they’re much better than they used to be.”
Oxman says his wife takes good care of him and that he just shed a few pesky pounds. Despite being well into his 10th decade, he finds motivation to wake up every day to be at the museum to educate the public about military history.
“It’s something that takes you to a different time,” he says, “and I think that’s valuable for the next generation to learn about.”