- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

QUANTICO, Va. — It’s been in the works for more than a decade and anticipated for longer than that. And when the National Museum of the Marine Corps is dedicated tomorrow, on the Corps’ 231st birthday and just in time for Veterans Day, leathernecks all over the country will consider it a dream accomplished.

The $80-million, 200,000-square-foot museum — a contemporary structure with a unique skyline profile designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects of Denver and built by Centex Construction and Jacobs Facilities of Northern Virginia — sits just outside the Quantico Marine Base 35 miles south of the District.

It is the ultimate repository of some 60,000 significant artifacts of Marine Corps history and 8,000 works of combat art, as well as other historical items. And in its exhibits the Corps’ history, its traditions and some of its most momentous battles come alive.

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It opens free to the public on Monday, allowing everyone a glimpse of what it means to be a Marine.

“In essence, this is a museum that will set the bar for all other military museums in the future,” says retired Maj. Gen. Donald R. Gardner, president of the University of the Marine Corps on the Quantico base, which runs the new museum. “We are justly proud of it and all the people who have made it possible.”

Just a beginning

The towering 210-foot slanted mast atop a ribbed glass pyramid looms imposingly over Interstate 95 at the Triangle exit, suggesting the famous Iwo Jima flag raising of World War II. It is actually the support for a majestic atrium beneath named the Leatherneck Gallery.

Designed in a circular form banked by sloping berms, the new museum is the centerpiece of a future Marine Heritage Center on 135 wooded acres donated by Prince William County between I-95 and Route 1 opposite the main gate of the Quantico base.

When completed, the Center complex will include a parade deck, memorial walking trails, a chapel, an Imax theater, a conference center and a hotel.

Inside the building today is a 93-seat theater, a restaurant aptly labeled the Mess Hall, and a functional replica of the famous Philadelphia Tun Tavern, where in 1775 the first Continental Marines were reported to have been recruited.

There visitors can relax, enjoy a brew or soft drink, and reflect on the exhibits around them. A combined gift store and bookstore offers Marine souvenirs, mementos and military books.

Museum Director Lin Ezell, who was previously program manager of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum annex at Washington Dulles International Airport, oversees a staff of 36, all members of the Corps or retired Marines. She says she is “delighted” with the new facility’s “concept and uniqueness” and the coordination among the people who brought it to life.

That includes the Marine Corps itself, which started the project by acquiring the location from Prince William County and gave seed money for construction; the University of the Marine Corps; the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, the primary fundraiser; and the designers and contractors.

Up close and personal

The new museum is a monument to a unique force, the smallest of all U.S. military services, the three-division/three-air-wing combined land-sea-air forces of the Marine Corps. The Corps’ primary mission is expeditionary and rapid response to any hot spot in the world.

And its exhibit galleries give an up-close-and-personal view of battle. On entering the foyer, visitors are stopped in their tracks by the spacious light-filled, towering, conical atrium of the Leatherneck Gallery, one of several galleries designed by Christopher Chadbourne Associates of Boston.

Suspended aloft are Marine aircraft: two World War II gull-winged Corsairs, used by both Marines and the Navy to sweep the Japanese air forces from the skies over the Pacific and to provide close air support to frontline Marines.

A contemporary AV8-B Harrier “jump jet,” the vertical take-off-and-land (VSTOL) fighter/bomber, contrasts with the nearby World War I Curtiss Jenny biplane with its pilot and rear gunner perched in open cockpits.

On the floor below them is one of the first helicopters ever used in combat, a Sikorsky HRS-1, shown disembarking Marines for battle in September 1951 at the Punchbowl in North Korea. The structure of a ship’s bridge ascends the far wall, affording elevated views of the gallery and closer examination of the suspended aircraft.

Opposite is a simulated chunk of the beach at Tarawa atoll with an “amphibian tractor” landing craft smashing across the coconut log barrier while Marines storm ashore over the debris and past the wounded on the sun-bleached coral sand.

Tarawa was a bloody three-day battle and the first time in history that a Navy-Marine amphibious force overwhelmed a heavily fortified shore position. There 984 Marines gave their lives; almost all the 2,600 Japanese defenders were killed.

The 62 “Marines” in action in all these exhibits are stunningly lifelike. No wonder: Their models were 75 active-duty Marines from Quantico who sat for hours in plaster to make the molds for the figures cast in a urethane compound by Studio EIS of New York, designers of three-dimensional sculptures. The spectator instinctively resists speaking to these “Marines” — or moves out of their way.

Battles come to life

The dozens of exhibits, fabricated by Design and Productions Inc. of Lorton, use state-of-the-art graphics and technology, augmented by surround sound, temperature changes, startling special effects and media visuals by Batwin & Robin Productions of New York City. Nothing is static; multimedia screens fade in and out while directional sound narrations guide and explain.

Marine historians drew up the criteria for the exhibits and honed the text material for the professional designers.

There is little blood and gore, but the simulated conditions of the battlefield will arouse sharp memories in veterans and awe in others. Vintage tanks, landing craft, helicopters, airplanes, weapons, artillery pieces, machine guns and small arms proliferate — most in battle configurations lighted dramatically.

Escorted by one of 100 Marine retirees who serve as volunteer docents, the visitor will learn through an interactive timeline of winding exhibits how the Marines evolved from the Revolution to the present.

From two ragtag battalions raised by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775, the Corps now has the two top-ranking military officers in the world: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace, and NATO Supreme Commander Gen. James Jones.

Gung ho

Old-timers, former Marines, and youngsters alike will thrill to the electronic rifle range, where they can test their skill with an M-16A2 rifle — or take up the challenge of flying the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in a state-of-the-art flight simulator. Both carry a nominal charge.

Duck past Revolutionary-era Continental Marines firing down from the “fighting top” platform on the mast of a frigate, then join a busload of raw recruits as they alight at boot camp — and stiffen with them as the hardened drill instructor barks them to attention.

A gallery of giant photos of the global war on terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq take visitors right into the action there. Many show Marines interacting with local people, even sharing candy and goodies from their own rations.

Follow a wall of small, illuminated memorabilia, relics, uniforms and artifacts on one side of the “Legacy Walk” gallery, or veer off to the other side to get a taste of what battles were like. The sound and video effects of the combat exhibits re-create the sense of how it was with safety and realism.

Above these galleries hang other Marine aircraft: a World War I de Havilland bi-wing DH-4 bomber, an F4F Wildcat, a TBF Avenger torpedo plane, a Japanese kamikaze plane, an F9F Panther jet, a Huey helicopter and an A-4 Skyhawk.

Send in the Marines

Wonder what it was like hitting the beach at Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945? Board the tracked landing craft vehicle, personnel (LCVP), as it bumps the surf and nudges on shore. Then step onto soft simulated volcanic ash and trudge among crouching Marines amid the cacophony of withering enemy fire. You can almost smell the acrid aroma of sulfur and gunpowder.

Iwo was the costliest battle in World War II in its ferocity and casualties in a five-week period. Almost 6,000 Marines lost their lives, and 27Marines and Navy corpsmen received the Medal of Honor, most posthumously.

On a wall are 6,000 tiny Marine emblems and Navy insignia commemorating those who fell in that battle. Another 19,000 were wounded; only a few of the 22,000 defenders survived.

Here too are the two flags raised on Iwo’s Mount Suribachi — the smaller one raised initially and the larger one that became a national icon thanks to the historic photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. A Speed Graphic camera similar to Mr. Rosenthal’s is also on display.

Esprit de corps

Open a glass door in the Korean War exhibit and a chill hits you — mercifully 58 degrees, not the 40-below-zero temperature at the frozen Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in December 1950.

You flinch as green tracers zing by and Marines in the dimness in the snow-covered mountain setting at Toktong Pass fire their yellow ones back at the unseen enemy. Incoming mortar shells crack menacingly, while the thuds of outgoing rounds echo them. Harsh voices yell at one another above the din. Figures of a few Chinese corpses lie half-buried as parka-clad Marines huddle and return fire.

A figure of their Fox Company captain, William Barber, hovers wounded in the dim, frigid night light as he directs the fight. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions.

In that two-week battle in late November-December 1950, the First Marine Division fought its way 70 miles back from deep in North Korea down a narrow mountain road to evacuation on the coast, leaving behind 10 incapacitated Chinese communist divisions that had surrounded them. The Marines were the only United Nations unit to withstand intact the Chinese onslaught when China entered the war.

A sharp turn and you are inside a CH-46 Sea Stallion troop helicopter as bullets strike the fuselage and the pilot yells to disembark down the rear ramp out onto the “hot” landing zone on Hill 881 South in the thick of battle just above the besieged Khe Sanh combat base in Vietnam in 1967.

As you do, the downward blast of prop wash hits you and the whomp-whomp of the rotor blades doubles you into a crouch. It is hot and humid, and that fierce firefight rages again all around. Many a veteran will want to drop to the ground.

Then, enter a Vietnamese village with its straw thatched roof and dirt floor — but watch out for the punji-stake trap camouflaged in the ground. Fortunately, it will just light up when a visitor inadvertently steps on it; a real one would have torn through the foot of an unwary Marine, incapacitating him.

Also here is a replica of a Viet Cong slatted wood 2-by-3-by-4-foot POW “cage,” too small to either stand or sit down in.

Other special exhibits abound: “The President’s Own,” as President John Adams in 1798 first termed the Marine Band; a gallery of Marine combat art from the Mexican War of 1846-1848 through Iraq in 2006; and enemy small arms captured from many wars.

A look to the future

The museum is the culmination of a dream by senior Marine officers grouped around the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, an association of retired Marines and friends of the Corps established in 1979 to preserve and promote the history of the Corps.

And the foundation is the first to say there’s more work ahead.

“We are tremendously proud of the museum, but the job is not yet done,” says retired Lt. Gen. G.R. “Ron” Christmas, president of the foundation. “We still need private funding to complete the entire Heritage Center, the conference center, and the hotel.”

Gen. Christmas says that although private and corporate donors were the backbone of the project, contributions came in from more than 60,000 individual Marines and other supporters.

“What we have created here is truly a national treasure, as well as a gathering place for Marine families and friends,” he says.

H. Avery Chenoweth Sr. is a retired Marine Corps Reserve colonel who served in three wars as an infantry officer, a combat artist and historian. He is the author of two books, “Art of War” and “Semper Fi,” an illustrated history of the U.S. Marines recently published by Main Street Press.

WHAT: The National Museum of the Marine Corps

WHERE: 18900 Jefferson Davis Highway, Quantico, Va.

WHEN: Tomorrow: Invitation-only dedication ceremonies. Ribbon cutting by President Bush at 2 p.m. In attendance will be Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Michael Hagee, senior Marine officers and non-commissioned officers, major donors and dignitaries.

Saturday and Sunday: Limited ticket tours for the public.

Monday: Full daily operations begin. Museum open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas.

TICKETS: Admission free beginning Monday. $5 fee for electronic rifle range or flight simulator.

FACILITIES: Cafe restaurant, Tun Tavern Pub, gift and bookstore, restrooms.

INFORMATION: www.usmcmuseum.org

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