Unusual find with WWII connections at thrift store

The mortar-shell tubes in one of the munitions crates found at the Depot Outlet thrift store in Decorah. (submitted photo)

The mortar-shell tubes in one of the munitions crates found at the Depot Outlet thrift store in Decorah. (submitted photo)

Driftless Multimedia’s Zach Jensen never served in United States armed forces, but thanks his experience as a longtime Iowa newspaperman, he knew what he was looking at didn’t belong in a thrift store.

Jensen visited the Depot Outlet in Decorah one day in October, to look for things to help decorate his new desk at the local newspaper office. And, as he was standing in line to pay for his goods, he looked down and noticed something peculiar: A U.S. military munitions crate with original markings. 

“There were two crates — one in a bit better shape than the other,” Jensen said. “They made me curious, so I decided to look inside the top one, and what I found just about made me call 911.”

Jensen found three tubes in each crate — all with markings indicating they were used to haul something containing a military-grade explosive known as “Composition-B”, which he knew, from past interviews, was used in World War II. Upon further investigation, the local reporter was able to deduce that the tubes were used, specifically, to transport Composition-B mortar shells.

According to the 1996 Paul Cooper book, “Explosives Engineering”, Comp-B was used in U.S. military explosives from World War II through the Vietnam War, and it had been used in mortars, grenades, tank shells and more. Comp-B is also named by Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “Saving Private Ryan”.

“I hadn’t touched them yet, so I asked the cashier if she knew that these tubes contained highly explosive materials,” Jensen explained. “But, she said they’d all been checked and were all empty. I still had to check for myself, and sure enough they were empty. But, I asked myself, ‘What would Comp-B mortar shell tubes be doing in the Depot?’ The crates were marked $100 each, so they knew they had something, but did they know what they actually had?”

Not wanting the war memorabilia to fall into the wrong hands, Jensen immediately took photos of the crates and tubes and called VFW Post 1977 Treasurer Mark Stockdale and sent him the photos. Stockdale agreed the crates didn’t belong in a thrift store and assured Jensen that he’d try to find them a new home.

That new home turned out to be the new Allamakee County Veterans Museum at 40 1st St. SE in Waukon, which opened in 2022. Marsha Rush, who volunteers for the museum, said the Depot didn’t charge them for the crates or their contents, but the museum made a donation to the Depot for its contribution. 

“We have them on display now,” said museum volunteer John Bauercamper. “I showed them to some Vietnam veterans, and we put them in the same Vietnam War display with a bunker and a mural of helicopters in the back. We already had a similar wooden crate, virtually identical, that Carl Johnson had purchased a long time ago. He donated most of his Vietnam stuff to us.”

Bauercamper said Johnson, formerly the Iowa VFW President, was a decorated Vietnam Veteran from Waukon, who worked for the Decorah Post Office for many years.
Originally, Johnson was a “tunnel rat”, and Bauercamper said Johnson worked his way up to become a sniper during the Vietnam War.  

“He and several other Vietnam vets identified them as a Vietnam-era munition; the kind of thing that was used in mortars,” Bauercamper said. “Several remember carrying them around. We haven’t had anyone who was a mortar man, but there was a mortar outfit in every company.

“So, we’ve set those two on-end and used them to display things,” Bauercamper continued. “If we had a mortar, we use them for what their purpose was, but we don’t have a mortar, because they’re fairly hard to come by. I don’t know if that would even be legal.”

It may be legal for someone to own the crates, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe to handle.

“Now that they’re empty, they’re legal,” Bauercamper said. “But, when I opened the tubes up to look at them, my hands kind of burned afterward, so I think there’s some debris left over inside those tubes. We didn’t think it was a good idea to have them open or have them touched by the public. So, we’re using the crates to display the tubes, and we’ve displayed them in such a way that you can read all the stenciling on them.”

Bauercamper said it’s unlikely that a Veteran would bring home two crates of mortar shell tubes, but the possibility isn’t entirely foreign. For example, most of the items Johnson donated he’d found in thrift stores and other similar venues. 

Bauercamper added that everything the public can contribute to the museum helps tell the story of the conditions and events Veterans experienced and what they used in their daily lives. 

“It’s not easy to get many things for exhibits,” he said. “Every time we get something like this, it helps augment an exhibit we already have, or it might give us an idea for another exhibit. So, we very much appreciate the interest and support we get from people, because they help us tell that story better.” 

“I’m just glad they went to someone who really appreciates them,” Jensen said. “A lot of people might think it’s cool to own something like those crates and mortar tubes, but they’re literally a part of our Veterans’ history. To me, not revering them is the same as disregarding our Veterans’ experiences, and that’s just not how I was raised.”

The Allamakee County Veterans Museum is open Fridays and Saturday mornings throughout the winter months and by special appointment. It also hosts special programs each month. To leave a message at the museum, call 563-568-3411. Or, to schedule an appointment to visit the museum, call Bauercamper at 563-568-7526.

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