FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Military museums allow visitors to experience the rough and tumble jerk of a parachute jump, the barked orders of an Army drill sergeant or the segregated training endured by the first African-Americans to enter the Marine Corps.
Whether you are a hardened military veteran or one who’s never worn a uniform, several military museums in the Carolinas offer extensive lessons in military service as the Nov. 11 Veterans Day draws near.
In Fayetteville, N.C., the soaring Airborne and Special Operations Museum attracts between 120,000 to 175,000 visitors every year and tells the story of how America’s military developed the strategy of dropping fully-armed soldiers into battle from the skies. A 15-foot sculpture of the paratrooper dubbed “Iron Mike” stands guard at its glass-and-girder front entry, which evokes both the 250-foot “jump towers” that paratroopers use to train and the wingspan of the C-47 aircraft that dropped soldiers onto battlefields in World War II.
Located just minutes off Interstate 95 in downtown Fayetteville, N.C., the museum is holding a weeklong celebration in advance of Veterans Day, says Paul Galloway, executive director of the foundation that supported construction of the $25 million building.
“We’ll be hopping and popping. We do a salute to veterans every year,” Galloway said. A week of films about the Army and paratroopers will be held the week prior to the holiday, as well as other events to honor military men and women, Galloway said.
As soon as you enter the museum, you spot a World War II-era paratrooper in combat gear floating out of the sky under a yellow 28-foot-wide parachute. Behind him, another model drops from the heavens, a modern Army Ranger buoyed by a light green, honeycombed parachute used by U.S. Special Forces.
A wild ride can be had in the museum’s 24-seat platform motion simulator, recreating the bumps and jumps of parachute drops and rides in military vehicles.
To highlight some of the major events of wartime paratroopers, visitors first stroll through a recreated village in Normandy. Recordings from the June 1944 Allied invasion to liberate France from Nazi Germany put visitors in the heat of the battle, with rockets and bullets screeching by. Overhead, a C-47 “Skytrain” aircraft hovers with a U.S. Army paratrooper poised to jump out an open door.
Walkways are papered with still photos, videos and murals that show the history behind U.S. forces that evolved into the famed Special Operations units, designated to take on unconventional warfare and special missions in foreign lands.
Displays from the war in the Pacific, the Korean War and Cold War are shown. In one display, soldiers jump from a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter into a jungle battle raging in Vietnam. Other displays detail the history of U.S. involvement in the Dominican Republic, Panama and Grenada.
America’s conflicts in the Middle East are recalled with models of camouflaged soldiers crouching in desert hideouts in Iraq. Others depict U.S. Special Operations forces meeting for tea with Afghan villagers or medical centers where military medics tend to local children.
The latest addition to the Army’s military museums is the Army’s Basic Training Combat Museum located on Fort Jackson, in Columbia, S.C., which reopened in July after a two-year renovation.
More than 60,000 male and female soldiers graduate every year from basic training at Fort Jackson, which is the Army’s largest training site. The museum offers guests and family members a taste of their grueling 10 weeks of indoctrination and combat training.
“The museum boasts a number of high-speed exhibits that zoom in directly on how civilians are turned into soldiers, interwoven with Fort Jackson’s past,” said the two-star general in charge of the post, Maj. Gen. James Milano.
Visitors may be startled by drill sergeants who appear in holographic images bellowing commands, allowing them to “feel as if he or she has enlisted in the Army and is standing there in their Army Combat Uniform,” Milano says.
Check out a fully loaded duffel bag, or try to lift and shoot an Army rifle. Listen as soldiers march by and learn some of the drill sergeants’ cadence calls that keep soldiers sharp and in step.
The museum gives visitors a sense of how rough training once was with displays of World War I-era barracks, complete with wood-burning, pot-bellied stoves, metal beds and modest rations.
“I learned how they’d done basic training in the past,” said Pvt. Christopher Thorngate, 26, visiting the museum with his grandparents Dale, 76, and Janet, 70, of Salem, W.Va., a day before his own graduation from basic training. “They worked the simulations in very well, so it’s not just history and you don’t get bored.”
Grandfather Thorngate, who retired from the Air Force after 26 years, said he was pleased to learn how present-day training made use of combat weapons and tactics.
“Whether it’s the Air Force or Army, it’s good to see that they keep instilling military values, the discipline that is needed,” he said.
While most Marines recall their basic training taking place either at Parris Island, S.C., or Camp Pendleton, Calif., there is a third site few know about: the Montford Point Marine Museum, located near Camp Lejeune, N.C., at Camp Gilbert H. Johnson.
“We are the Marine Corps basic training site you’ve never heard of,” jokes Finney Greggs, a retired Marine and director of the small museum located in one of the original white wooden, single story barracks buildings where African-Americans were segregated from white Marines as they trained from 1942 to 1949.
The museum holds photos, letters, uniforms and other mementos from blacks who endured tough training to earn the eagle, globe and anchor Corps’ insignia and disprove the notion they weren’t worthy because of the color of their skin.
African-Americans gained entry to the Marines after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing the commandant to allow them to train. In 1948, President Harry S Truman signed an executive order that desegregated the military services, and all Marines went to boot camp at either Parris Island or Camp Pendleton.
Greggs says the museum is seeking material for displays and is looking for information about any veterans who may have trained at Montford Point and saw duty in World War II. Organizers are also looking ahead to building a second phase dealing with the history of these Marines in the Korean War and Vietnam.
“A lot of families don’t even know where their veteran may have served. We tell them, ‘Just ask and find out! Maybe some of the older members of your church community were part of World War II and trained at Montford Point,” said Greggs’ wife, Louise, who helps manage the site. “We’d love to know who they were!”