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Sacrifice and service

Museum owner Vince Cockriel, a Vietnam War-era Marine, has been collecting war memorabilia for decades. His collection includes hundreds of authentic uniforms.

CANNON FALLS – Military service runs deep in Vince Cockriel’s family.

There was Aunt Elsie, a World War II telegraph operator; Uncles Jim and John, a Marine and tail gunner, respectively; Uncle George, a special agent who guarded California docks from spies and saboteurs; and his father, William, a Navy aviator and Army Air Corps member who flew in combat tours over Saipan — just to name a few.

The artifacts of his family history, as well as hundreds of other pieces from World War II, will be on display to the public this weekend at Cockriel’s newly opened Cannon Falls Military History Museum at his home off County Road 24.

A labor of love for the retired Edina, Minn., parks department superintendent, Cockriel said the museum is the culmination of decades of collecting military memorabilia.

“Someone could watch ‘Pawn Stars’ or ‘American Pickers’ for a hundred years and not see the kind of stuff that’s in here,” Cockriel said. The exhibit features authentic uniforms and equipment, complete with names and photographs of the men and women who used them.

Cockriel said he designed the display as a profile of the World War II era, including the military branches, homefront activities, the role of women and the impact of American industry on the war effort.

More than a venue to show his vast collection of pieces — estimated somewhere in the hundreds of thousands spanning all the major 20th century American wars — Cockriel said the museum gives area veterans a chance to reminisce and share experiences from their youth.

“It’s cool that what I’m showing here is making them think of something they can tell their family,” Cockriel said. “It’s rewarding in that sense.”

He said that he especially enjoys seeing older veterans being able to show their wives a glimpse of what their time in the service was like.

“You can just see their chests pump out,” Cockriel said. “An 82-year-old guy feeling like he’s an 18-year-old stud again.”

Cockriel, a Marine veteran from the Vietnam War era, said he started his collection as a boy in the 1960s around the death of his grandfather, George Cockriel, who served as the provost marshal of American forces in Germany during World War I.

“He was larger than life,” Cockriel said, recalling his grandfather’s stories that he listened to growing up.

Once out of the Marines, Cockriel said he added his own service items to the pile of family heirlooms; and, before long, he found himself collecting more from flea markets and garage sales as a hobby.

Although he intends to update the museum to feature items from other wars, and eventually keep it as a World War I museum permanently, Cockriel said he chose to open it this year with a World War II theme so living veterans would have a chance to enjoy it.

The sad truth, Cockriel said, is that World War II veterans across the country are dying at a rate of almost a thousand a day.

One of those veterans was Frank Cooley, an 82nd Airborne Division veteran Cockriel met before his death in 2011. At over 6 feet tall, Cooley didn’t fit the bill of the typically short and stocky paratrooper, Cockriel said.

“When I first saw him, I said, ‘Frank, how the hell did they make you a paratrooper?’” Cockriel said.

Turns out that extra bulk was for good reason; Cooley, leader of a heavy weapons platoon, was in charge of parachuting with a 100-pound mortar tube along with his normal gear.

Cockriel said he considers Cooley’s uniform and personal effects — including a paratrooper switchblade knife and numerous medals and ribbons — among the most significant pieces in the museum.

“He was such a cool guy,” Cockriel said.

The museum will be open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today through Monday. There is no charge for admission.

Appointments can be made for visits outside of normal hours by calling 507-263-3698.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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