Donald “Don” Rollette’s face lit up as the roaring sound of a M3 Stuart tank echoed through the room.
“Check this out,” he exclaimed.
Instead of the 16-ton armored vehicle, a remote control replica measuring nearly two feet emerged from underneath a table. As he began pressing the buttons on a controller, the toy began playing authentic sounds of its weapon system firing. He laughed wildly— his excitement from the tank was only a prelude to a much larger cache of memorabilia this former corporal of Marines has amassed in decades of collecting.
Don lives the simple life of a retired veteran with his wife, Doris, in suburban Baltimore. But one step inside his extraordinary basement reveals a world of military history and Espirit de Corps. He turned his downstairs into a miniature military museum of sorts, full of relics from 237 years of Marine Corps’ antiquity, valued upwards of $1 million.
“When you get downstairs, he’s got glass showcases, the weapons and uniforms on mannequins and it’s properly displayed and identified,” said Jack Colleran, Don’s friend. “If you have the time to see it all it would be worth your while. It’s very unique.”
Don likes anything related to the military, especially collecting weapons amongst other things. He acquired his first weapon in 1940 when he purchased a M95 Budapest rifle for a mere 50 cents; from that point on it became his passion. Then in 1947, he made a decision that brought a sudden halt to his newfound hobby, but deepened his regard for the military.
“When I turned 17, I went down [to Baltimore] and joined the Marines,” Don said. “My mother and father were really upset and all, even though it was not wartime then. So I asked about joining the Reserve because I knew a lot of guys down [at the local Reserve unit], so that at least would keep my parents happy.”
Don had a variety of responsibilities while serving as a Reserve Marine and engineer. The Marine Corps kept him very busy, yet still enabled him to stay engaged with his hobby and also train proficiently on different weapons. His superiors noticed his marksmanship skills and summoned him and a few other Marines to tell them, “That is what we need, people who can shoot.” It was August of 1950 and America was heels in the snow in Korea.
Don accepted the burden of his mastery and was deployed to the shores of Inchon on Nov. 14, 1950. However, he never got off the ship. Regulations at that time would not allow Marines with less than 11 months left on their contract to go into combat unless they re-enlisted. Don had only four days left and chose not to re-enlist. He returned to Baltimore and his burgeoning military museum, hesitant about the decision he had made.
“I didn’t do it and I’ve been sorry about it for the rest of my life,” he said. “I lost 15 good friends there, and chances are I wouldn’t have made it either because I would be picking up souvenirs.”
Throughout the years, Don’s collection grew via purchases at garage sales, markets or donations from retired service members or their spouses.
“After getting discharged to go home, I started picking up stuff here and there and all of the sudden it kept on going and going,” he said. “The word got around that I would take care of stuff and I do not sell anything [online]. I don’t even know how to work a computer.”
“He had to renovate his basement three times because he [ran] out of space,” said Colleran, a retired sergeant major of 32 years in the Marine Corps Reserve.
The final makeover of his basement allowed Don to fill almost every corner of it, providing space for more than 50 weapons, numerous uniforms, books, gear, military toys and other antiques.
Don will accommodate anybody who wants to see his collection if they schedule an appointment. He has hosted many high-ranking military members. Many people also want to visit Don’s house to see his other award-winning trophy, a jeep.
“He has a World War II jeep that he has renovated and he always takes this jeep with signs for Marine Corps League Baltimore Detachment and always goes in his old khaki uniform and participates in parades,” said Colleran, who serves as the chief-of-staff for that Marine Corps League.
Aside from being his favorite piece in the collection, Don takes the vehicle to many car shows and military displays where he’s won countless prizes for its authenticity. Just like all the pieces in his museum, it is an original vehicle with original parts. Many would choose to profit from the collector’s item, but to Don, it is priceless like all his memorabilia.
“I look at it this way— if something happens and I need money, I might just have to part with them,” said the 82-year-old veteran. “My son jokes and says he’s going to close the house down and open it for tours, but I’m not planning on going for a while.”
Spending countless hours in his basement, he still works daily on organizing and attempting to catalog and value the substantial military collection. The hobby keeps Don occupied, but the real reason he collects the objects is to uphold the honor of his Marines and his friends. Even though Don spent only handful of years in the service and never went to boot camp, he still keeps faith with his fellow Marines every single day.