A History Buff’s Guide to U.S. War Museums

In honor of those who served, stop by these museums around the country.

A History Buff’s Guide to U.S. War Museums

A bomber plane on display at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Photo by Pat Tompkins

A certain “1 percent” in U.S. society refers not only to the extremely wealthy but also to the number of citizens actively serving in the military—and many of us know far less about that 1 percent than we do about the ultra-rich. To add more meaning to Veterans Day than a long weekend, consider visiting these history museums that aim to bridge the chasm between veterans and civilians.

The National World War I Museum and Memorial

For in-depth historical coverage of the “Great War,” the National WWI museum in Kansas City, Missouri, takes you underground into a huge windowless space. There, sounds of artillery surround you amid life-size replicas of the trenches that epitomize this modern war, which was fought primarily from massive networks of deep ditches.

Built under the Liberty Memorial tower finished in 1926, this museum opened in 2006 to bring to life the first global war. Here, informative charts, timelines, and a compelling film clearly spell out factors that led to the conflict and the sequence of events during the fighting, which lasted from 1914 to 1918.

Even if you’re confident you know “all about” WWI, you’ll learn more. See the slim metal arrows in a glass case? Airplanes dropped those lethal fléchettes to fell soldiers from high above. Nearby, the collection of “the things they carried” (tins of tobacco, dice, mini domino sets) helps personalize infantrymen.

Some of the largest items on display are tanks, aircraft, and weapons; a full-scale crater recreating a howitzer’s destruction of a French farmhouse also has plenty of visual effect. Though smaller in scale, the selection of propaganda posters, directed at civilians—schoolchildren, farmers, factory workers—are colorful graphic alarms, and alone worth the visit.

Other items in this world’s largest collection related to WWI: a woman’s baseball uniform from the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during the American occupation of Germany immediately after the war, an Australian infantry uniform, and diaries from prisoner of war camps. In private booths in the center of the museum, visitors are invited to sit and listen to wartime songs and poems by such notable soldier-poets as Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Whatever you focus on, it’s hard to emerge from this dark underground unaffected.

Inside America's official museum dedicated to World War I.

Inside America’s official museum dedicated to World War I.

Courtesy of the National World War I Museum and Memorial

The National World War II Museum

The French Quarter, Mardi Gras, endless restaurants and live music venues: To most visitors, New Orleans is associated with letting the good times roll. But the city’s top attraction is a more serious place.

The National WWII museum here, which opened in June 2000, started as a museum devoted to D-Day and has expanded to include six buildings and cover the entire U.S. involvement in the war from December 1941 to August 1945. The newest building, the Hall of Democracy, opened in October.

A visit starts on a 1940s train; from a kiosk, take an ID card for a real person active in the war; as you move through the museum, you can see how the war affected your person at various checkpoints. I latched onto a free tour led by a volunteer for the floor devoted to D-Day. The guide had no doubt gone over this material countless times, yet he spoke with an enthusiasm that was palpable.

Again, discoveries here await in every corner. That odd little wooden cart? It housed carrier pigeons used to send messages by both the Allies and Axis sides for reliable low-tech communication. That flag featuring an attacking panther? The mini-flags on it represent the 33 subs that the USS Tang sunk in its short career.

Although I arrived early on a weekday and spent all day there, I didn’t have time for the theater with hourly showings of Beyond All Boundaries, a film narrated by Tom Hanks, and sped through the war in the Pacific exhibits. My visit ended in the largest building, the U.S. Freedom Pavilion, which houses several bombers suspended from the ceiling and includes an interactive submarine ride about the final mission of the USS Tang. Enlarged to be less claustrophobic than a regular sub, it is an eerie re-creation. You are assigned to be a crew member from that last journey and given a job to perform; after the sub is sunk, you find out if your man was one of the few to survive. Mine did not.

A mask worn by a WWI tank driver to prevent blindness from shrapnel.

A mask worn by a WWI tank driver to prevent blindness from shrapnel.

Photo by Pat Tompkins

The National Veterans Memorial and Museum

Opened in 2018, this museum in Columbus, Ohio, pays tribute to veterans of all branches of military service throughout U.S. history. The late senator John Glenn, the pioneering astronaut and Marine Corps aviator, led efforts to establish this museum, a striking structure of more than 50,000 square feet that spirals up to a rooftop terrace, where you can overlook the city. The focus here is not on battles or strategies but on the people who have served, historical and contemporary.

Special exhibits include a current Light During Wartime, featuring the combat photographs of Stacy Pearsall. She spent six years in the U.S. Air Force First Combat Camera Squadron, which visually captures operations and records history; she was deployed mainly in the Middle East.

Letters, other personal artifacts like footlockers, and films present the stories of a wide range of veterans. Interactive elements include Share Your Story, which enables visitors to create a short video of their experience by using screen prompts in a story booth and to leave their stories behind for others. In addition to the Remembrance Gallery, with stained glass stretching from floor to ceiling, outdoors is a Memorial Grove with a reflecting pool, a place to contemplate the debt we all owe veterans.

>>More: What to Do in New Orleans This Winter

Pat Tompkins has written for Afar about movies, books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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