As cold rain drizzled down on the cemetery in Braunschweig, Germany, a young man grabbed Dallas native George Cone by his coat and threatened to kick his ass. Cone, who was 40 at the time, was at the cemetery to attend his first German World War II paratrooper reunion to honor fallen comrades. The man who confronted him was one of about two dozen who ambushed the ceremony to protest the former Nazi soldiers’ gathering.
“All of a sudden, you hear Germans approaching from behind a large bush area, and they are screaming ‘Mörder, mörder!’ which means murderers,” Cone says. ... “I said, ‘What are you guys doing?' They said, ‘Get out of the way,’ and I said, ‘Hey, let these old men honor their dead in peace,’ and one of the guys grabbed me on the lapel of my suit coat and said, ‘I’m going to whip your ass.’ So he grabbed ahold of me, and I started pounding on his face.”
When the scuffle was over, Cone walked away with one of his eyes bloodied and bruised.
Cone says the German veterans heard him scream English profanities and were shocked an American came to their defense. To show their appreciation, they awarded him a plaque engraved with German paratrooper wings. Cone says the president of the German paratrooper association shook his hand and told him, “This is your hand-to-hand combat badge for protecting us.”
Cone had defended the men who fought his father, 2nd Lt. Jack T. Cone, on the battlefield decades ago.
AN AVID COLLECTOR
From an early age, Cone was fascinated with WWII veterans. The 57-year-old has befriended several German and American soldiers over the years and has collected seemingly countless relics from the notorious war they fought.
“My job is to preserve the history, to teach the [younger] generations to tell the stories of what these men told me, so they won’t be forgotten,” Cone says.
In 2017, he opened the Lest We Forget WWII Museum on the second floor of Music City Mall Lewisville, formerly called Vista Ridge Mall. It had been in Dallas’ Valley View Mall.
Cone, who worked in the oil industry, houses tons of artifacts, including uniforms, battle flags and a glass case filled with German military helmets, some that once belonged to soldiers in Adolf Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, or SS. The place is eye-grabbing. Mall shoppers stop and peek through the museum’s glass windows to glance at some of the historical pieces Cone displays inside.
The blank stares of more than 50 mannequins dressed as soldiers wearing authentic WWII helmets and uniforms, all standing or crouching in lifelike positions, greet guests. The figures are dressed in American, German, British, Japanese, Canadian and New Zealand WWII-era military attire, all original uniforms Cone has obtained. He can tell you a story about each of the museum’s silent soldiers based on its uniform, equipment and medals.
He also keeps an assortment of genuine military flags displayed in his museum. One can spot an authentic red Nazi flag with a swastika hanging behind a squad of motionless German soldiers sporting their Nazi-era uniforms.
Cone offers free private tours for anyone interested in getting a closer look. He only schedules tours by appointment, and no items are for sale.
“I have been in many museums,” says Gary Reeves, a fellow WWII artifact collector and Vietnam War-era veteran who visited the museum to show Cone an authentic German POW uniform. “I have traveled all over the world, and I have never seen anything like this. And here it is, right here in Lewisville. … It’s just been an experience meeting [Cone] and getting to know him and his passion.”
Cone says his goal is to preserve the legacies of WWII veterans from both the Allied and Axis armies. He says his central theme for the museum is to highlight the important role North Texas soldiers played in the European theater, especially his father’s outfit from the Texas 36th Infantry Division.
FATHER OF VALOR
Cone says his admiration and fascination with soldiers stemmed from his father, the first Texan to be drafted into the Texas 36th Infantry. He keeps photographs of his father dressed in his uniform behind a glass window near the museum’s entrance.
“My father was the first draft pick out of Fort Worth in 1940,” Cone says. “He was put in the Texas 36th Infantry Division and was with them in Africa and Italy. He was in the 143rd infantry regiment, and he was in the second wave of the invasion of Salerno.”
He says his father’s infantry was the first American division to crack Hitler’s continental fortress, the German army’s massive coastal defense, nine months before the U.S. invaded Normandy.
“The 36th division was the spearhead of the invasion,” Cone says. “It was their baptism of fire.”
It took Cone several years to piece together what his father experienced at Salerno. He says he wished his father told him more about the brutal Italian beachfront he faced. But Jack Cone was reluctant to share grisly combat stories with his son and kept details about the war to himself.
When George Cone was a small child, he dug through his father’s sock drawer and stumbled upon a shiny war medal. He had discovered his father’s Legion of Merit, an award given to U.S. soldiers for extraordinarily meritorious conduct.
He says he asked his father a thousand times what he did to receive the prestigious medal, and his father always said, “I had the cleanest boots in the outfit.”
Although Cone has acquired tons of rare items from WWII, he says his father’s medal is his most prized artifact.
“The only thing my dad kept from World War II was the Legion of Merit that was in his sock drawer,” Cone says.
Cone grew up in East Dallas. His parents raised him and his six siblings in the family home on McCommas Boulevard.
At an early age, he began collecting small American and German WWII-era military items, which included ammo pouches, backpacks and bayonets.
In the late ’70s, Cone attended Woodrow Wilson High School. There, he was unsuccessful in putting together a German class. After graduating from high school, he attended Austin College in Sherman, where his interest in the German language continued.
In 1981, during his sophomore year, Cone enrolled in German courses and flew to Germany to study at the University of Freiburg.
“The purpose of me learning the language was to be able to talk to the German soldiers and ask what the fuck were they up to, why they did what they did,” he says.
Cone soon learned to speak fluent German and became familiar with the country’s culture. He even landed a job at an international bank that sent him to London, Hong Kong and Frankfurt.
While abroad, Cone’s father was suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and Cone returned to Dallas to be by his side.
Near the end of his life, Jack Cone gave his son the Legion of Merit medal he kept in his sock drawer.
“When he was dying … he told me he wanted me to have that medal,” George Cone says. “I don’t have it here at the museum. I have that locked up in my house. That’s my greatest treasure.”
In 1991, Cone’s father died at the age of 75.
“My father was my best friend, my hero and my role model,” Cone says.
UNDERSTANDING THE ENEMY
After his father’s death, Cone started visiting 36th Infantry Division reunions in Dallas-Fort Worth and across Texas to meet the veterans who served with his father. He wanted to learn more about his father's actions. He began to interview soldiers from the 36th Infantry, 45th Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division and Army Rangers, all American divisions that invaded Salerno.
After learning more about his father and gathering several firsthand accounts from soldiers who plowed their way through barrages of bullets and grenades on the beachfronts of Europe, Cone became more curious about his father’s former enemy, the German soldiers.
“The lightbulb went off, and I started to go to German military reunions in order to find the men that fought my dad,” Cone says.
He discovered the veteran gatherings in Germany were much different than the ones in the U.S. Cone says German WWII soldiers rarely publish the times and locations of their reunions, fearing they might be publicly attacked or ridiculed.
He says the German government allows its citizens to refer to German WWII veterans as murderers, as the group of protesters did at the paratrooper reunion in Braunschweig.
For years, Cone sought out the recollections and memories from soldiers who fought on both sides of the war. He says he has about 150 interviews on tape.
LEST WE FORGET
Cone spends most days of the week working in his office next to the museum. When Cone is away from the mall, he spends time with his wife, Manuela Scholten-Cone, a German immigrant, and their three children.
Cone says he hopes the museum and his many encounters with soldiers will inform his children about the incredible sacrifices U.S. veterans made and how they were role models for his generation.
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“The point of the museum is to honor the American veterans, their sacrifice and their service,” Cone says. “They gave it their all, so we could have our freedoms. I show the Germans and the Japanese and the other nationalities because they’re part of the war.
"I get people mad because there is a Nazi flag, but how can you show the German army and not show a Nazi flag? How can you show the American army and not show an American flag? It’s part of the history.”
Cone says Music City Mall Lewisville management recently told him there is a retail company interested in the museum's space. He said if the retailer decides to take the spot, then he will have to tear down his museum and box up his collection.
“I spend a lot of time and a lot of money to put this together and maintain it in order to honor the vets,” Cone says. “That’s all I want to do is honor the vets. If we don’t remember what they did, their sacrifices are gone.”