This morning we joined our wonderful relatives, who recommended today’s outing, and ventured to the National Museum of the Marine Corps, a fantastically designed museum about 5 minutes from our spot in Prince William Forest. As we walked into the grand entry hall, a round circular room made of marble, and decorated with photos, period quotes, hanging airplanes and realistic vignettes — we were all in awe at the amount of detail displayed in each of them.
We spent about 10 minutes walking around before entering the main gallery, which wound it’s way around in a circular fashion, showcasing the role of the Marines throughout the decades.
One of the first exhibits you encounter is an overview of the Marine Corps, where you hear from Marines and their perspectives on the Corps — the training they endure, and what it truly means to work as a team. Next to the hanging obstacle course…obstacles…was a small indoor firing range, which is one of the few things you need to pay for, as everything else is free.
For $5 you were allowed to shoot 10 rounds of a laser-equipped M15-A4 rifle at targets that were simulated at 300 yards. There was no sound or recoil, but the guns were metal and actual weight, which was pretty cool. As you fired, your shot was electronically registered on a target, and after ten rounds, you were given an accuracy score. Between Mr. S, Mr. T and myself, our scores ranged from 82% – 90%. Mr. T is very much into marksmanship, so as we were leaving, I stopped and asked the lady working the range what system they were using. It turned out to be something that’s easily purchased by civilians like us — it was a BEAMHIT 360/460 Laser Marksmanship Training System, and it would awesome if we were able to have one setup some day. I put that knowledge in my back pocket for a later time :)
And then the real tour started.
I was truly in awe at the quality and presentation of every display — they were all beautifully done, with raw source footage playing on screens when possible. Given that it’s Memorial Day weekend, there were large groups of veterans milling around with everyone else, and I often found myself fighting the urge to walk up to every one of them, asking them if I could shake their hand and say thanks…thanks for everything you’ve done.
I’ve never experienced war, in any capacity, and can only pretend to imagine what it would be like to have lived through something as brutal…it was rather humbling and surreal to be learning about a particular war in history while those who were involved, in some capacity, standing next to you, seeking a few moments of reflection and solace on times past.
As we wound our way through each of the milestones in history, from defending the new republic with the birth of the Corps in 1775, through World War I and World War II and onto the Vietnam and Korean Wars, it was easy to be absorbed by each of those periods in time. I couldn’t stop taking pictures because the vignettes were so realistic, from drops of sweat running down soldier’s cheeks, to the dirt in the pores on their faces.
Right before we finished touring all of the galleries, we were split up, and ended up reconvening outside in the grand hall. Heather and Divagirl had walked through the Vietnam exhibit, which turned out to be the one exhibit the boys and I skipped. I think we breezed by it as we were looking for the ladies, and didn’t even think about it. But when Heather and Divagirl emerged, we learned that Divagirl was freaked out by the fake helicopter and its realistic sound – to the point of tears! The boys and I thought…helicopter? How did we miss that!? So we headed back in to experience it for ourselves. To enter one of the main Vietnam exhibits you had to walk through a small entry way, which turned out to be the rear end of a helicopter, making it look like you were being unloaded into battle at the other end. It was pretty great :)
The one true highlight for me was watching a 3-minute video of actual footage that was recorded during the attack on Iwo Jima, and then meeting 87-year old Frank Matthews (24th Marines, 4th Marine Division). The video was playing on a large screen as Frank, the last surviving Iwo Jima veteran of his 40-man platoon, stood off to the side with a laser pointer, narrating and informing all of us attentive folks about what we were watching. Afterwards, he stepped aside into an adjoining room to tell us all about his experiences, and what we learned was amazing.
As the next groups of folks finished watching the video, we started to shuffle out of the room, and I stopped to shake his hand. I really wanted to take a photo with him, but felt we needed to move on, and so I moved along reluctantly.
In the end, we spent the better part of 3 hours walking through all of the galleries before our stomachs started to rumble, and we headed upstairs to grab some lunch in the Mess Hall.
After lunch, we spent a bit of time milling around the gift shop. As I walked around looking at everything emblazoned with USMC on it, I kept having this nagging feeling of regret, that I needed to go see Frank and have a photo taken before we left the building. After looking around to see that everyone else was busy browsing, I snuck out of the store and walked briskly back to the Iwo Jima exhibit. Frank was standing in the main hall, chatting with a few other folks who were also asking for photos. After they left, I asked a young Marine dressed in uniform standing close by if he wouldn’t mind snapping a quick photo of Frank and I, to which he agreed, quite happily.
As he handed my phone back to me, he turned to Frank and beamed as he said, “This is a great one, Frank.”
I can only imagine how many times he’s been told that :)
Frank cracked a smile, shook my hand again, and wished me well.
If you don’t think you’ll ever make it to the museum, you can check out a virtual tour online: http://www.virtualusmcmuseum.com/
And here is a short video of Frank retelling his story: