If you’ve read many of my blogs, you know I’m partial to the history of World War II. Discovering the writings of Alex Kershaw increased my interest. His books are intriguing and I’m eager to read his latest, Against All Odds. Reading his stories prepared us for a day at The National Museum of the US Army. The museum officially opened in November of 2020 and is an under-promoted gem. Alex (mine, not Mr. Kershaw) stumbled upon it by accident via some show with Joe Mantegna. Random world, right?
If you hear to allow at least two hours, don’t believe it! We were there from 11:00 until 4:00 and never made it beyond one-half of the first floor. The docents and volunteers are helpful every step of the way.
The Exterior of the Army Museum is Austere
A stern and somber facade sets you up for what you’re about to experience. As you approach, don’t miss the seeing details. A soldier stopped to look at a spindly sapling. As he walked by, I said we had him photo bomb our picture. He apologized, but we assured him it was our honor. Then he explained that the saplings are memorial plantings. He was looking at his family’s tree. What a wonderful way to grow a tribute with the museum.
The Soldiers’ Stories Gallery begins outside the doors. These rectangular pillars are etched with photographs and brief bios of veterans. The tributes continue inside and are random, so roam, read, and marvel at the stories. Toward the back row of the Gallery, the bios become electronic and rotate through veterans.
A small-world story is that years ago while visiting the Smithsonian Castle an author was setup with his book. One of the first pillars I stopped to read was about Tuskegee Airman Lt. Charles P. Bailey. (Note: I cannot find this book online anywhere! Since I regularly donate books to our library, it’s long gone. If you find it, let me know because I’d like to give the author credit.
Inside the Museum
Begin with the introductory movie, Of Noble Deeds, in the 300-degree theatre. It is an impactful and emotional way to launch your visit. I readily admit that watching the Honor Guard nearly always brings me to tears. If you can find a video of them in action, take the time to watch it. (I couldn’t find one to share with you). The discipline the Honor Guard employs to do their precision rifle work shows what soldiers learn—team work, diligence, and accuracy.
History is messy and one era crosses and impacts another. But be logical and visit the museum in chronological order. The exhibits start with Founding the Nation, moves to Preserving the Nation, Nation Overseas, and the Global War. You continue to the Cold War and finish with Changing the World. Also in this gallery area is an exhibit, Army and Society, which explores what happens at home when our military is deployed.
All but a handful of artifacts are real. Rather than just being on display for show, each artifact tells a story. Don’t hesitate to ask a docent or volunteer—they are well-informed and many of them are veterans.
You Always Learn
An open mind let’s you take in the large and small moments going on around you. One tidbit I took from this museum is about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We’ve been to Arlington a number of times and find the Changing of the Guard a poignant experience. Over the years, I missed the history of how the soldier was chosen for that honor. You can read the full story here. World War I Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger (recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross) chose one casket. That man became the first interred at Arlington at the Tomb.
Each exhibit room is amazing and well done. I kept pondering—how does one begin to create a museum? Especially a history museum. You want it to be impactful and as honest as possible. But you don’t want to rely on shock or awe to tell the stories. The National Army Museum manages to do all this with first-rate clarity.
When You Go to The National Museum of the US Army
- Since we were staying in DC for the weekend, we took the Metro (Blue line) to Franconia-Springfield station and caught the Newton Circulator bus (Fairfax Connector). It couldn’t have been easier! The Metro ride was about 40 minutes and the bus maybe 15. The return ride to the Metro station was longer because it was the end of the work day and involved more stops. Great drivers on both routes and much easier than us fighting traffic.
- Go to the website and get timed-entry tickets. The museum is free, but maybe you’ll be inclined to drop some cash in the box by the exit door.
- The museum is located on the Ft. Belvoir Army base. This is an active base. Be respectful of the serving military, and veterans, you’ll come across.
- Hungry? The Museum Cafe is terrific and reasonably priced. We had shared a latte (me) and espresso (Alex) for a total of $6.31. Cheaper than certain coffee houses and better! We returned for lunch and split a huge sandwich and fries. Beware that you order fresh items via a large electronic menu. Oh yeah, we were baffled, but the gals running the place were terrific.
Read, The World War I Museum