The excitement Rodney Hilton Brown felt as a boy searching for rusty Revolutionary War relics in forgotten Philadelphia attics has never left him.
That boyhood thrill of hunting for mementos has only deepened, giving way to an obsessive quest for iconic artifacts that tell the story of America’s bravery and courage on the bloody battlefields of World War II.
Now Brown, 71, is owner and founder of the New York-based nonprofit “wholesale” War Museum, with a strong interest in preserving U.S. military history. His hundreds of finds and Indiana Jones-like discoveries have been on display over the years in museums like the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the U.S. Naval War College Museum and the New-York Historical Society.
“Most collectors, when they collect, collect one of every year of something or one of every type of something and go for the best condition they can until they have complete sets,” Brown told FoxNews.com. “I started collecting relics of American history that had provenance and stories attached to them, things that were more than things; but they were actual parts of our history.”
One of those historical items Brown tracked down was sold last month at a New York City auction for $350,000. The item was a torn U.S. flag that flew aboard a Navy troop transport ship that was part of the Normandy invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The wind shredded the flag as it flew aboard LST 493 during the ship’s dropoffs at every Allied beach, including Omaha. Brown acquired the flag from the ship’s gunnery many years ago.
Brown says he views that flag as “the quintessential symbol of America’s struggle for freedom, liberty and independence” and as an enduring link to the country’s founding in 1776.
“Over the last 2 ½ centuries, that flag really stands for what the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the soldiers in the Revolutionary War fought for -- and the freedom and independence that later generations had to go back and fight for again and again and again,” he said.
The unnamed online buyer who purchased the flag was reportedly Glenn Beck, the cable TV and radio host. Brown said it didn’t surprise him the buyer was Beck.
“Glenn is a historian, a student of American history and American patriotism and is known to be a collector of historical objects,” Brown said. “One thing that makes me happy is I know that he will be using the flag as a teaching aid and symbol in his own work.”
The flag was a big discovery for Brown, but not his biggest. In 1990, he found a 10-ton sculpture that had been lost for more than 40 years. The 12 ½- foot tall monument was the original cast stone Felix de Weldon work of art depicting Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945. De Weldon went on to create a much larger version in bronze, the 32-foot tall Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.
The smaller, original piece stood in front of the old Navy Department building, now the Federal Reserve Building, in Washington, from 1945-1946. Eventually the government returned it to the sculptor. While working on a book about de Weldon, Brown was told the original had been thrown away. Nevertheless, he made it his mission to look for it. His expedition led him to the artist’s abandoned Washington studio. There, in the yard, under a tarp covered by fallen trees, Brown saw a “big lump.” When he cut the tarp open with a pocket knife he stood staring at the monument.
“I just said, ‘Oh, my God. This is it. This is a national treasure,” he said.
The piece had suffered heavy damage in its hiding spot. Brown bought it from de Weldon with a promise to restore it and unveil it on the 50th anniversary of the Iwo Jima flag-raising. Brown said the restoration cost him millions of dollars. Still, he kept his word. The statue had its unveiling on Feb. 19, 1995, at the Intrepid museum.
The collector said Iwo Jima resonated with him because of the sacrifice U.S. Marines made on that Pacific island and how Rosenthal’s photo -- and the statue --captured that heroism.
“Right after that flag was raised and everybody saw that, it represented victory, it represented the will to win.” Brown told FoxNews.com. “So the slogan on the next fundraising poster was ‘All together now; let’s finish the job.’ And the image of that flag-raising at Iwo Jima raised so much money in war bonds sales, that piece of artwork paid off half the debt of World War II. That’s amazing.”
After 11 years on display at the Intrepid, the museum's board returned it to Brown. He has kept it in storage in New England ever since. Last year, the sculpture was put up for sale at Bonhams auction house. The piece was expected to fetch $1.8 million, but did not sell.
Brown said the lack of interest disappointed him. He said a lot of institutions had expressed interest in acquiring it. “But their attitude was, ‘You know, Rodney, truck it on over and we’ll put you on the board.'”
Last year, Brown heard from a couple of businessmen who wanted to acquire the monument for a World War II museum in Bradenton. Fla. He has also been contacted by a group called "Operation Home of the Brave" that wants to bring the statue to Camp Pendleton, near San Diego.
Brown said he wants to find a good home for the statue. “I invested a ton of money into buying it and then restoring it, so I wish I was so wealthy that I could afford to just give it away for a tax deduction. But that didn’t turn out to be,” he said.
Brown is a veteran, but that doesn't explain the zeal he brings to his hobby. He served in the Army from 1961-1967 and spent his entire time in the service on U.S. soil. He is currently the president of a New York mortgage-banking and investment advisory company.
So, what does explain his passion? His love for America, he says.
Brown’s vast collection includes pieces from various eras of U.S. military history, not just World War II. He divides his World War II memorabilia and artifacts into categories: Submarine; Aviation; Marine Corps.
He said there was little interest in World War II when he started acquiring pieces from that period.
"Vets wouldn’t talk,” he said. “The stuff sat up in their attic and it wasn’t appreciated because they weren’t appreciated and they weren’t appreciated because they didn’t want to be appreciated. They’d seen too much and were silent. And then all of sudden we realized who these people were, The Greatest Generation.”
As World War II artifacts with a story became harder to acquire, Brown has turned to new pursuits. He said he is shifting the focus of his collection to a time 450 years earlier: the period of Christopher Columbus and America’s birth.
He said he was always interested in that time. He is a long-time member of New York’s 110-year-old Explorers Club and a life-long student of exploration.
“I grew up sailing and have been very fascinated by the courage of these early explorers in Europe when everybody thought if you sailed west you’d be gobbled up by giant dragons in the sea.”
Still, he admits that the material from that time will be rather hard to find because of its scarcity.
For Brown it is just another challenge to conquer.