Air Force Museum Puts Admittedly Inaccurate Story Back On Display; Sekulow’s ACLJ Launches Attack To Defend Exhibit

12/15/2017 09:49 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2017

The Background

Back in October, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) received several emails regarding an exhibit on display at the Air Force’s Enlisted Heritage Hall, a museum at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama showcasing the history of the service, accomplishments, and sacrifices of enlisted airmen through the decades.

The exhibit in question consisted of a mannequin in an airman’s uniform standing next to a Christian chapel flag, with a sign telling the following story:

“This Christian Flag is significant because it was rescued from the ruins of an American Chapel that ultimately found itself situated in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. In 1960, a young A1C Luke Holcomb, was assigned to the post along the Demilitarized Zone. From his duty section he could see what remained of the chapel and was fascinated by the site [sic] of the U.S. and Christian flags leaning against the rear corner of the building. One night, he and three friends swam across the river separating them from the chapel, and at the risk of death, they liberated the flags. It was his wish that this flag be displayed in dedication of the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen who risked their lives during the Korean Conflict.”

The emails received by MRFF expressed objections to this exhibit for two reasons, one of which was a common reason for objections to such an exhibit — that an exclusively Christian symbol was being displayed in dedication of all service members who served in the Korean War, many of whom, just like today, were of other religions or no religion.

But the second reason that this exhibit was objected to was not about religion; it was about historical accuracy – that the story presented by the museum about the history of this so-called “DMZ flag” seemed completely implausible if not downright historically impossible. As one of the people who contacted MRFF put it:

“As an historian, I find the display and text particularly troubling and disappointing in terms of the historiograpical methodology involved … the story of the flag’s provenance is suspect and demands more critical review, especially for a tax-supported military museum espousing close academic links to Air University. Until the flag story can be proven with any confidence and certainty the institute must weigh what the display of a ‘Christian flag’ says and signals within a multicultural and multi-religious Air Force.”

As I pointed out in a previous piece about this exhibit in which I detailed the historical problems with the museum’s story, the most obvious problem was the condition of the flag. For this flag to have been retrieved in 1960 would mean that it had been sitting outside in the elements for seven years, since the DMZ was created in 1953. A flag made of natural fibers, as a flag of that era would have been, would already have started to rot away after just a few years of being left outside, where, among other things, it would have been constantly wet during Korea’s yearly typhoon season with its average rainfall of 14 or 15 inches a month. After seven years in these conditions it wouldn’t even have been recognizable as a flag. And yet the flag in the exhibit is in pristine condition, right down to its fringe. There was also the problem of its not even being the right type of flag that a chaplain would typically have had in a war zone. And, besides the issues with the flag itself, we were told by experts on the history and geography of the DMZ that there was nowhere that an airman would have been stationed in 1960 that would have been anywhere near a place where they could have swam across the river, let alone seen a flag from across the river.

The problem of the museum’s promoting of this historically dubious story seemed to be taken care of as of Oct. 27 when, after contacting the museum, I received an email from the director of the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute (AFEHRI), CMSgt Emily E. Shade, in which she agreed that the story seemed inaccurate and said that the sign had been removed, writing:

“As a result of your inquiry and after looking at the framed wording, I concur that the dates and story seem inaccurate. We have removed the photo of the wording from the exhibit, as well as from our Facebook page.”

But, although the sign was removed, the Christian chapel flag with the airman mannequin standing next to it remained on display, now without any historically significant reason at all, dubious or otherwise, for this particular flag to be on display in this museum. Therefore, MRFF did not consider the matter closed, and continued its efforts to get the exclusively Christian flag (which, without any historical significance related to an enlisted airman is nothing more than a gratuitous promotion of Christianity) removed.

And now, as I’ll get to after explaining why MRFF sent someone a few weeks ago to take more photos of the exhibit, we have discovered that the museum has returned the sign to the exhibit, and is therefore now knowingly promoting a piece of “history” that it had admitted wasn’t historically accurate.

Enter Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ)

There are three things that the ACLJ is very fond of doing: 1. Getting lots of signatures on petitions protesting the so-called “persecution” of Christians in the military; 2. Attacking the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and especially MRFF’s founder and president Mikey Weinstein; and, 3. Making up lies about MRFF to outrage their followers so that they can get all those signatures on their petitions attacking MRFF and Mikey Weinstein.

The ACLJ’s modus operandi for launching one of its petitions is to publish an article on its website in which whatever facts need to be distorted or lied about are sufficiently distorted or lied about; put a link to the petition at the end of the article, urging people who have just read the distortions and lies in the article to sign the petition to defend whatever the article purports to be defending; and promote the same distortions and lies and petition on the Jay Sekulow Live radio show. The petition is then repeatedly posted by Jay Sekulow on his Facebook page, which has over 4 million followers, with some commentary from Sekulow, which, in the case of petitions against MRFF, typically includes Sekulow’s calling MRFF “angry atheists” or “anti-Christian zealots,” in spite of Sekulow’s being fully aware that MRFF is neither an atheist nor an anti-Christian organization, and that 96 percent of MRFF’s clients are actually Christians. But words like “angry atheists” and “anti-Christian zealots” are obviously more effective for drumming up outrage among potential petition signers (not to mention potential donors), so, being the fine “Christian” that he’s made a career out of claiming to be, Sekulow simply disregards that pesky commandment about not lying.

So, how does the ACLJ twist the facts about MRFF’s efforts to get the historically dubious story of the airman allegedly retrieving the Christian chapel flag from the Korean DMZ in 1960 removed? Well, for starters, by claiming that MRFF is attacking history.

Its petition-signer-getting article, titled “Defend the Chaplain Flag, the Cross, and Christians Who Serve Our Nation,” begins:

“In the latest attack by Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), the target is not only the United States military (MRFF’s venomous specialty) but is also an attack on history, in this case the history of the Korean War.”

They then conflate the dubious story of the airman retrieving the so-called “DMZ flag” in 1960 with a completely unrelated true story in the exhibit — the story of a chaplain’s assistant’s role in the evacuation of Korean orphans ten years earlier in 1950 — using this real story about a chaplain’s assistant to claim that the entire exhibit is a “chaplain assistant display,” although, as you can see from the photos below, the exhibit also contains a radio operator and other miscellaneous artifacts that have nothing to do with either the chaplain’s assistant story or the “DMZ flag” story, making it obvious that the exhibit has no particular theme beyond its all being from the Korean War. But by claiming that the orphan evacuation story and the “DMZ flag” are somehow related because the exhibit is a “chaplain assistant display,” the ACLJ can then claim that the reason the flag is a Christian flag is because the chaplain’s assistant in the unrelated orphan evacuation story, Staff Sergeant Merle (Mike) Strang, was a Christian chaplain’s assistant:

“Because Staff Sergeant Mike Strang was a ‘Christian’ Chaplain’s Assistant a ‘Christian’ Chapel Flag is in the display. His chaplain, (Colonel) Russell Blaisdell, a Lieutenant Colonel at the time was also a Christian as well. These two men are part of a very noble and famous Unit Ministry Team during the Korean War. And they flew an identical flag to mark their location as they traveled in Korea.”

The flag, of course, had nothing at all to do with Staff Sergeant Mike Strang and the orphan evacuation. The flag was put in the exhibit because of the completely separate, historically dubious story of an airman named Luke Holcomb and his alleged swim across the river to retrieve it from the DMZ.

The Staff Sergeant Mike Strang orphan evacuation display, which is to the left side of the exhibit.
The Staff Sergeant Mike Strang orphan evacuation display, which is to the left side of the exhibit.
The Luke Holcomb “DMZ flag” display, which is to the right side of the exhibit.
The Luke Holcomb “DMZ flag” display, which is to the right side of the exhibit.
The entire exhibit, which also includes a radio operator and items such as an enlisted airman’s footlocker in between the Str
The entire exhibit, which also includes a radio operator and items such as an enlisted airman’s footlocker in between the Strang and Holcomb displays.

But that’s not the only thing wrong with the above paragraph from the ACLJ’s highly deceptive article. The attempt to connect Staff Sergeant Mike Strang and the chaplain he assisted to the “DMZ flag” by claiming that they “flew an identical flag to mark their location as they traveled in Korea” is also completely wrong. A chaplain’s flag is not a large flag like the one in the exhibit. A chaplain’s flag — the flag that is issued to a chaplain deployed in a war zone to mark their location — is a much smaller two by three foot flag, issued as part of a chaplain’s kit. The much larger flag in the museum’s exhibit is a chapel flag, not a chaplain’s flag. This larger chapel flag is the type of flag authorized only to be displayed indoors, inside a permanent chapel building along with a U.S. flag. So, no, Staff Sergeant Strang and his chaplain did not use an “identical flag” to the one in the exhibit “to mark their location as they traveled.”

But the ACLJ’s revisionist claims don’t stop there. They need to somehow explain the presence of the mannequin in the airman’s uniform standing next to the flag — the mannequin representing Airman First Class Luke Holcomb, the river-swimming, flag-retrieving airman from the completely unrelated, dubious DMZ flag story. And how do they do that? By claiming that it’s a mannequin of a chaplain’s assistant, wearing a “chaplain assistant’s uniform.” A chaplain’s assistant’s uniform? A chaplain’s assistant wears the same uniform as any other enlisted airman. Occupational badges, which are pins recognizing qualifications in non-flying Air Force occupations, weren’t introduced until later, so there is nothing on this uniform identifying it as the uniform of a chaplain’s assistant or any other occupation. It’s just a generic enlisted uniform from the era, on a mannequin that was supposed to represent Airman First Class Luke Holcomb, not a chaplain’s assistant.

So, how does the ACLJ’s article get around the fact that the Luke Holcomb “DMZ flag” story had nothing at all to do with chaplain assistants or the Staff Sergeant Mike Strang orphan evacuation story? Well, they just omit the details of the Holcomb story altogether, not even mentioning Holcomb’s name or the date that story allegedly took place, giving nothing more than this vague sentence about the museum removing the sign:

“The Air Force initially had a plaque near the chaplain assistant display, because they had been incorrectly informed that the chapel flag had been found in an abandoned chapel in what is now the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.”

They are then free to make the rest of their article about the inspiring story of Staff Sergeant Strang and the orphan evacuation, complete with links “proving” that this story — a story that nobody was questioning in the first place — is true, leaving their readers with the impression that they have indeed proved that the “angry atheists” at MRFF are attacking history.

The Return of the Admittedly Inaccurate “DMZ Flag” Story to the Enlisted Heritage Hall Museum

When the ACLJ came out on Nov. 29 with its article and petition regarding this exhibit and attacking MRFF, I wanted a photo showing the entire exhibit in one shot to use when rebutting the ACLJ’s lies, so MRFF asked someone near the museum to go there and take a few photos.

When I received these photos, which were taken in the first week of December, I was extremely shocked to see that the sign telling the dubious “DMZ flag” story was back in the exhibit, since, as explained earlier, I was told over a month earlier in an email from the AFEHRI’s director, CMSgt Shade, that she agreed that the story seemed inaccurate and that the sign had been removed.

CMSgt Shade has not responded to the email I sent her over a week ago requesting an explanation for the return of this dubious story that she herself had agreed seemed inaccurate to the Enlisted Heritage Hall museum.

So much for CMSgt Shade’s statement in her October email that: “We strive to make the exhibits historically accurate and appreciate when inaccuracies are found, so that integrity of the displays is maintained.” It now appears that a display that has about as much “integrity” as Jay Sekulow and his ACLJ is acceptable in this official U.S. Air Force museum.

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