Travels with Bob: The National Museum of The American Army
By Bob Nesoff
Of the many firsts in American military history, the United States Army can claim to be in the forefront.
The Army was the first military unit formed at the Revolution. It was the first to use unconventional tactics that took the British, who attacked in formation, making them targets as in an arcade game. The Americans attacked from behind trees, from cover, rarely ever standing in formation.
They were the first to make use of what today is called “Special Forces.” Their guerilla tactics befuddled the enemy. Much of what they adopted came from the Indian population that attacked, ran and attacked again.
The modern Army was the first to create such an outfit and called it “Special Forces,” the fabled Green Berets, considered by many to be the most elite of American fighting forces.
The best way to experience any of this history, aside from enlisting in the military, is to stop over at the Museum of the American Army located off I-95 South at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
The painstaking detail that has gone into the exhibits, the reverence given to the individuals who served and the units in which they served, gives the visitor, even civilians, an almost personal connection to the U.S. Army.
A unique feature that may be exclusive to the museum is the facial features of the mannequins on duty throughout. Each one has the face of a real person. When they were being constructed, museum officials enlisted any number of volunteers. Masks were made of their faces and then they became the actual faces of the volunteers on the mannequins. A visitor may recognize Uncle Charley or Cousin Harold and be taken aback by the likeness.
A slow stroll through the various exhibit halls brings into focus the Army’s early days. There are soldiers holding muskets, chow wagons ready to feed hungry troops, tents for the combat weary to rest.
In fact, should a soldier from the 18th century walk through the exhibits, he would think he had come home. So realistic are the displays.
Some of the artifacts on display have an amazing history of their own. There is a famed Sherman tank, the workhorse of WWII. The tank, a war machine that brought dread into the hearts of the opposing enemy as they heard its treads rumbling toward them, one of some 53,000 produced for the war. The one on display, named the “Cobra King,” was actually the first tank to break through German lines at the Battle of the Bulge.
Too often, the Biblical adage of “Beat the swords into plowshares,” had no foresight to future needs or historical context.
Unfortunately, too many implements of the wars were consigned to junk yards or melted down. Some were saved through the diligent efforts of those who valued history. There is a Higgins Boat that actually landed troops on the beach at the Normandy invasion. It’s a rarity as one of only six since known to still exist.
Named for designer Andrew Higgins, the troop carrier brought thousands of troops onto the beaches in Europe and then in the Pacific Theater. It carried more troops than any other transport vehicle throughout the war. It could carry either 36 combat ready soldiers or 12 with a jeep on board. It was able to deposit the troops and/or vehicles on the beach and make a rapid turnaround for another load.
The M-1 on display was carried by Pvt. Martin J. Teahan and has his name carved into the stock. Teahan carried this rifle as he parachuted into Normandy early on the morning of June 6, 1944. Tragically, he and more than half of the men in the 508th Infantry Regiment were killed in the operation.
Most of the modern exhibit features were actually used in combat. There is the M-1 Garand, the .30 caliber workhorse of the infantry in both Europe and the South Pacific. It carried an eight-round clip and made a loud pinging sound as it emptied and was ejected from the weapon. That, unfortunately, sometimes told the enemy that the soldier had to reload. It is the weapon used by a journalist in basic training in 1957. Soon after that, the military began to upgrade and modernize its individual weapons and troops were issued automatic rifles.
There is a saddle used by Green Berets in Afghanistan, made famous by the movie “12 Strong.” The Special Forces troops wreaked havoc amongst the enemy on a mode of transportation ended after the First World War. That put the “Special” in Special Forces.
The Green Berets were trained to infiltrate behind enemy lines and set up opposition forces amongst the locals. They were medically trained and set up dispensaries to help the local populations. They never sought publicity and were always happy to work behind the curtain. The author especially enjoyed the depiction of the Green Berets as the final unit where he served as a staff sergeant, was Green Beret.
Aside from the saddle, there is a helmet worn by Alvin York in WWI. He was presented with the Medal of Honor for the capture of more than 130 German soldiers. In a misunderstanding in the civilian population, the comment is often he “won” the Medal of Honor. It is presented, not won.
On an upper floor is a gallery of MOH recipients. The combined gallantry on display here is of incalculable heroism. Medal of Honor recipients are entitled to a hand salute from all in the military in spite of rank.
The entrance to the museum features a wall with the emblems of a variety of military units. The walk is lined with inscribed bricks honoring those who donated to help make the museum a reality.
When one talks about “Living History,” the Museum of the American Army tops the list. It’s impossible for a visitor to go through the exhibits and leave without a profound sense of awe and gratitude for the men and women who served in the American Army.