Sale museum a hidden gem

Mal Cotton, Lindsay Everard and Rory Ester stand next to the Aermacchi MB-326 that guards the museum's entrance. Photo: Tom Parry

TUCKED away in a shed at the West Sale Airport, one will find a modest, but nonetheless impressive, collection of army, navy and air force paraphernalia.

This is the home of the Gippsland Armed Forces Museum, an institution which dedicates itself to preserving the region’s military heritage.

Responsibility for the building largely falls to three men: Rory Ester, Lindsay Everard and Mal Cotton, all dedicated volunteers and former servicemen.

Mr Cotton is a relative newcomer, having not known about the museum until a chance encounter with one of its founding members, Lester Jackson.

“I knew Lester because he used to service my car back in the early 1970s,” Mr Cotton explained.

“I saw Lester out in town one day, and he says, ‘come on down to our museum’ – that was when it was the Drill Hall.”

By Mr Cotton’s own estimation, he first became a permanent presence at the museum a decade ago, and can be found volunteering there most weekends.

Mr Ester’s beginnings at the museum were similarly unassuming.

“I only got tied-up with it because my background in the air force – I’m interested in restoring old aeroplanes,” Mr Ester said.

He adds with a smile: “But I haven’t done all that much of that.”

A history of the lighthorsemen can be seen in the army section of the museum. All photos: Tom Parry

THE idea for a local military museum emerged in 2000, when a committee was formed with the view of establishing such an institution in Sale.

After some deliberations with Wellington Shire Council, the committee was granted use of the former Drill Hall on Punt Lane, which officially became the museum’s home in September 2003.

Then, in May 2008, the committee was given its marching orders, told to vacate the Drill Hall by year’s end.

Despite the protests of the committee – and the local netball community, which played on the adjacent netball courts – the museum was closed in December of that year.

As consolation, the committee was offered use of three buildings: one in Maffra, another – the old butter factory – in Yarram, and a shed at West Sale Airport.

The latter option was chosen, partly due to the site’s military links – it served as an Air Force Base during WW2, and today is utilised for training pilots stationed at East Sale.

The museum now occupies what was a gymnasium, and remnants of its sporting past are evident throughout.

The former basketball court now houses the Army section of the Museum, while the Air Force and Naval displays occupy the old squash courts.

Museum volunteer and committee member Lindsay Everard stands next to a flag once flown on the USS Missouri.

CONTAINED within the multiple rooms of the Museum is a fascinating array of items, including old military uniforms, an extensive model plane collection, an armoured vehicle, and an American flag once flown on the USS Missouri – the ship upon which the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed in 1945, bringing an end to WW2.

The public have been most keen to donate military wares over the years, resulting in a broad and sizeable assortment of items, to the point where volunteers are struggling to place things.

“The collection’s grown… and it’s grown to a state now where we’re becoming very select as to what we actually accept,” Mr Ester said.

“At one stage, people were dumping stuff here like an op shop, so now we’re a bit more selective as what we take, because we’re running out of room.

“But if it’s something that’s really good and it’s related to the local area, we’ll accept it.”

Local history is certainly well-represented, with the Air Force room boasting a number of items pertaining to RAAF Base East Sale.

Central to this curation is an historic overview of the RAAF Aerobatic Team, which has been stationed at the East Sale since 1962.

The display traces back to the squadron’s origins, the Red Sales, which then became the Telstars, before becoming the modern-day Roulettes everybody knowns today.

More Air Force history is found outside, where an Aermacchi MB-326 – an aircraft flown by the Roulettes until 1989 – flanks the museum’s entrance.

All three volunteers on-duty at the time cited the “Macchi” as their favourite artefact in the collection.

The Air Force display from above.

FOR Mr Cotton, the best part of his role is meeting people, and showing them around the collection.

“You don’t get too many people that are… disinterested or don’t talk,” Mr Cotton said.

“Most people come and ask you questions, and we go around and mix with people, and we might start (saying) ‘Oh, did you see this or this?’ So you tell them the full story.”

Oftentimes, according to Mr Cotton, he will leave attendees be after speaking to them about an item, only for them to beckon him back and explain the history of another item.

He believes that the museum has gone from strength to strength since relocating to West Sale, though it has faced challenges in recent years.

Foot-traffic is less than it was in town, volunteers are dwindling, and COVID put a dent in their finances.

“But that hurt everybody, so you can’t really whinge about that,” Mr Ester said.

They continue to see a steady stream of people through their doors, many of them local community groups or schools.

A recent highlight for the museum was the inaugural Anzac Weekend Airshow, which saw dozens of curious attendees make their way through the building.

“The way they’d organised it was the museum entry was part of the Airshow ticket, so instead of us sitting at the front door asking for $2 donations, we made a deal with the organisers for a lump sum, and everybody just came in or out whenever they wanted,” Mr Ester said.

“We had a ground plan where they come in (the main entrance) and disappear out the end door; that lasted about 15 minutes… it was just mayhem!”

Some even made a return visit in the weeks and months after, keen on viewing the collection again.

The naval display from above.

ANOTHER highlight has been a visit from Woodside Primary School, which saw all 29 pupils getting a tour of the building.

“It was brilliant! I had a ball that afternoon,” Mr Ester said of the school’s visit.

By means of appreciation for the volunteers’ efforts, students sent a ‘thank you’ card, which now proudly sits in the museum’s front window.

Spending even the shortest amount of time the museum’s volunteers, one gets the sense that their recognition is richly deserved.

The passion for their work is evident, their knowledge palpable, and their warmth infectious.

Perhaps that’s why they share such a camaraderie – in speaking to the Gippsland Times, the committee members all freely bounced off each other, engaging in good-natured banter and more than keen to share a laugh.

On this evidence alone, it appears that the museum has many strong years ahead of it.

Mr Ester, for one, is keen on sticking around.

“It’s a good way to spend a couple of days a week,” he said.

The Gippsland Armed Forces Museum is currently open Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, 10am to 4pm.

Those wanting more information can send an email to or phone the Museum during opening hours on 5144 5500.