- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

The word "hero" has taken on new meaning for many people since the terrorist attacks on the United States. But as Americans know, heroism and patriotism weren't invented on September 11.

The District's Navy Museum delivers a spectacular memorial to this fact. The museum is a tribute to this country's innovation, delivering a shot of American pride as it chronicles the history of the service from the Revolution through the Korean War.

The enormous exhibit space the length of about five football fields offers displays that celebrate the Navy's wartime heroes and battles as well as noncombatant aspects of the Navy, such as exploration, diplomacy, space flight, navigation and humanitarian service. The collection contains tools, equipment, personal materials and art, including the largest grouping of official Navy ship models available for public viewing.

It is housed within the historic Washington Navy Yard, perched on the shores of the Anacostia River and bound by the 11th Street Bridge, M Street SE and South Capitol Street.

"The Navy Yard itself has been a staple in Washington ever since the District was formed," says Sheila A. Brennan, director of education and public programs at the museum. Founded in 1799 and referred to as the Naval Gun Factory, the Navy Yard once served as a main producer of naval guns.

"The yard also served as the gateway to the District by visiting dignitaries and celebrities of the day via ships," Ms. Brennan says. "Then they'd get in a car or carriage and go to the White House or downtown wherever their destination was."

The museum, which opened in 1963, plays host to an average of 350,000 visitors annually. People especially enjoy the hands-on elements of the museum, Ms. Brennan says.

"We have lots of things that aren't in cases which are for visitors to touch," she says.

People stepping into the submarine room, for example, will find submarine periscopes to peer through as well as part of an actual World War II submarine battle station. Visitors can practice steering the boat and let their fingers graze the control panel, clicking the toggles and flicking the switches to check the water level or the ballast tanks.

The museum's largest exhibit is called "In Harm's Way," which chronicles the Navy's role in World War II and on the home front during the war. It contains a giant gun mount that visitors are free to climb upon to manipulate the gun barrels and swivel the mount in simulated battle. A code-breaking machine invites visitors to help decode Japanese messages to propel Americans into victory in the Battle of Midway.

In the home-front portion of the museum, a diminutive theater complete with a mannequin representing a member of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) staffing the ticket booth to sell war bonds shows segments of movies produced during and about World War II. "Action in the North Atlantic," starring Humphrey Bogart, delivered a jolt of nostalgia the day I visited.

So much more is on display around 5,000 artifacts. For example, a medals collection includes the service medals of Adm. Arleigh Burke, a famous destroyer squadron combat commander during World War II and chief of naval operations from 1955 to 1961. Shell casings from a World War II Navy gun are featured. Training identification models of American and Japanese airplanes are encased at eye level and the real things a Corsair fighter and a Japanese Baka bomb are suspended from the ceiling.

A shell from a 110-pound rifle, fired at the USS Kearsage in 1864 from the Confederate sloop of war, Alabama, sits unexploded in a piece of stern post.

There's also the prefabricated 9-by-13-foot hut the actual shack itself used during the second Byrd Antarctica expedition from 1933 to 1935. The Polar Exploration display also features a piece of Antarctic rock as well as items, such as survival gear, salvaged from various expeditions.

Prospective visitors who remain unconvinced that the Navy Museum is not aimed at military-history enthusiasts should remember to ask for the scavenger-hunt materials for young visitors or to request a family-friendly tour by a docent frequently a veteran.

"There's something for everyone in the family here," Ms. Brennan says. "Once a visitor gets here, they never forget their experience and seem to spread news of the museum by word of mouth. We have also heard visitors on occasion say this is better than the Smithsonian."

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