By DANIEL SUTPHIN
PUNTA GORDA — It started with three soldiers ... already painted and varying in cost.
Johnny Yong, 84, a veteran of the Korean War, began building the Battle of Bull Run diorama over a decade ago.
The battle took place Aug. 28-30, 1862, during the Civil War in Prince William County, Virginia.
To mark the anniversary of the war’s second Battle of Bull Run, Yong donated his diorama of the battle to the Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda.
“I used to be working for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office,” Yong said. “I was a lieutenant. Many years ago, they had ‘Police Olympics’ every year but they don’t do that anymore. I was on a shooting competition in Jackson, Mississippi. That is close to Vicksburg.
“In Vicksburg, there is a big battlefield from the Civil War. When I walked into the ticket office (at the battlefield), they had a souvenir shop. I can’t remember but I had three soldiers and I looked at them and they were detailed and hand-painted and so I bought three of them and that’s how it started. I started it in 2005.”
It took until recently to complete the finished diorama, Yong said. It was difficult to locate the proper uniformed soldiers, many of which had been discontinued when it came to collecting such models.
“What happened is I started getting books from the Civil War (era) and I started trying to get this (diorama) to looking as close to the battle itself,” Yong said. “It might be a little different but I tried to get it as close as I could to the first run.”
Yong said he tried eBay and other online avenues to sell the diorama but when it came down to it, the Military Heritage Museum felt best for its new home.
“I put it on eBay and I put it on different (sites thinking) maybe someone wants to buy it ... I put $8,000 to $9,000 into this. One soldier (can be) 17 bucks ... some soldiers are $47 (or more),” Yong said.
“As soon as I started collecting more than two or three soldiers, I started getting cannons,” he said. “I bought the one cannon, then another and then I had it in a wall unit display and than after some time. I had so many soldiers. I thought of (making it into) a diorama because I had too many soldiers. It got too big.”
But Yong’s story goes beyond the diorama.
Yong has been a lot of things over the years — a Korean War veteran, a trapeze performer with Ringling Bros. Circus, a U.S.O show performer with Bob Hope, a champion weightlifter and a Sarasota County Corrections deputy and even a performer for the Queen of England.
“(I was) a sniper in Alpha Company. We alternated being stationed the militarized zone in South Korea and North Korea,” MHM Executive Director Gary Butler read from Yong’s book, “A Balanced Life.” “My rotation arrived just as the world was gripping with these horrible occurrences. I’m not embarrassed to say I was scared.”
On his first assignment, Yong wrote that he was stationed in a tree as a look out ... “rifle in hand.”
“I found myself looking out through my scope at the countryside, small animals were shadows. Almost daydreaming rather than scoping out the enemy presence,” Butler read. “I lifted the scope to my eye and as I looked out I became paralyzed as I saw a sniper in a tree no longer than a few hundred yards from looking back through his scope ... There was no sight or sound. In truth, I had just been faced with an opponent who was no more prepared for what he had seen than I was.”
Bob Hope got Yong out of that situation, Yong said at Wednesday’s dedication ceremony.
“Bob asked me why I was in Korea,” Yong said. “He told me that he wanted me to finish the U.S.O tour with him and when I explained that I couldn’t, he went to talk with my commanding officer. Twenty-four hours later I was on tour with Bob Hope.”
Yong has performed with a generation of celebrities probably forgotten by some today, such as Lana Turner, Anita Bryan, and Tommy Dorsey — Hollywood from a different lifetime.
Today, Yong is retired and reflects fondly upon his experiences.
“I was in the circus (for) 40 years, traveling all over the world,” Yong said. “I speak six languages. I traveled all over Europe ... all over the world and even Asia. I’ve worked for kings and queens — (my brother and I) performed for the Queen of England in Windsor in 1974. This is what I used to do. It’s called ‘A Balanced life’ (Yong’s book).”
The Military Heritage Museum appreciated Yong’s donation and his story.
“We’re blessed to have you and to have your exhibit here in the museum,” Butler said.