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Veterans museum groundbreaking continues historical building's military legacy

Nearly four years ago, Bob Palazzola, then-president of the Costa Mesa Historical Society, wrote a somber note in the society's newsletter about the pending loss of a historical structure at the Orange County fairgrounds.

The Memorial Gardens Building, a former World War II-era Army barracks, was going to be torn down in favor of expanding the Pacific Amphitheatre, he warned. It would mean demolishing one of the remnants of the Santa Ana Army Air Base, which once took up a large swath of modern-day Costa Mesa, including the fairgrounds property.

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Fast forward to Wednesday.

Palazzola, an Air Force veteran, was one of hundreds present at the groundbreaking ceremony for Heroes Hall, a veterans museum that will be located inside the now-saved Memorial Gardens Building. For Palazzola and others — notably veterans and preservationists who decried the potential loss of the building and pressured the fairgrounds to save it — Heroes Hall is a dream come true.

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"Here we are," Palazzola said. "We're right at the threshold of something really great."

The ceremony was replete with politicians, military veterans from World War II to Iraq and others interested in seeing what Heroes Hall, near Centennial Farm and the Pacific Amphitheatre, will become.

The museum will take up more than 12,000 square feet, including an outdoor pavilion area and both stories of the 4,800-square-foot Memorial Gardens Building. Its expected completion date is Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

Fairgrounds officials also announced new details Wednesday about the museum's two inaugural exhibits.

The first is based on "The Things They Carried," a book by Tim O'Brien about the Vietnam War.

The second will tell the story of the Santa Ana Army Air Base, which was in use from 1942 to 1946. It will discuss the base's historical effects on Orange County, particularly its aerospace industry, and include tales of famous veterans who went through it, such as Joe DiMaggio, Joseph Heller and Don the Beachcomber.

Fair Board member Nick Berardino, a Vietnam veteran who serves on the museum's nonprofit board, said organizers are planning to incorporate Heroes Hall into an 11th-grade social science curriculum, which would bring hundreds of students through its doors.

"So they can learn and they can pass on to their parents and to their families and their siblings that freedom isn't free," Berardino said. "It takes courage and commitment and selflessness to sign up and say, 'Take my life, if you must. Take my future, if you must.'"

Larry Vales, a Costa Mesa resident and Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, applauded the commitment to build Heroes Hall.

"This is one of the greatest things in the world because it lets people know what the sacrifices are all about," he said. "We served our country, and now this is a tribute to those people who have lost their lives and everything else. They had to sacrifice."

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Bradley Zint, bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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