Like many veterans, former Marine Gunnery Sergeant Jack C. Carroll has spent much of his life trying to push the memories of his war years to the back of his mind. Then, in October, the 85-year-old survivor of Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, and Tarawa took his wife, Erma, on a sneak-preview tour of the new National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia.
"Tears came to his eyes, and he just stood there shaking his head and saying, 'I can't believe this,'" Mrs. Carroll says, recalling her husband's reaction in the Corps's soon-to-go-public museum. "I think he re-lived a lot of it right then, and I got a glimpse of what he and all those other boys went through. I myself know a lot more now about what it all means."
Marine Corps officials are betting that the Carrolls won't be the only ones on whom the new museum will have that kind of impact. The modernistic 110,000-square-foot structure, scheduled to open on 10 November, the Corps' 231st birthday, isn't your usual collection of display cases filled with neatly arranged swords, rifles, and historic uniforms. It's designed to give visitors a taste of the action, with interactive displays and realistic mock-ups. And, as Jack Carroll can attest, it pretty well delivers.
Through the Eyes of the Marines
"The idea here is to portray the history of America through the eyes of the Marines," says Joseph C. Long, the retired Marine Corps Reserve colonel who has helped usher the project through its seven-and-a-half-year design and construction period and now is its deputy director. "We also want to tell people about the Marine Corps and what it's like to be a Marine."
What struck Gunny Carroll—and what really sets this museum apart—were its stunningly lifelike room-size dioramas from famous Marine Corps battles, replete with actual tracked vehicles, howitzers, and even small landing craft that were used in each war. Not just displayed on a bare floor, the weapons are positioned atop the kind of terrain in which they were used—amid mud-colored hills, battered trees, and craters from incoming artillery rounds. Sounds of mortar shells punctuate the images. In some, the mock-ups are enhanced by cold temperatures or simulated winds to help give visitors a feel for what the Marines in each battle went through. The curators call them immersion experiences.
The Closest Thing to Combat
In a section depicting the Marine amphibious landing at Iwo Jima, visitors are ushered into a painstakingly re-created tank landing ship (LST) briefing room, given a rundown on what to expect on the embattled island, and helped into a Higgins boat that ostensibly will carry them ashore. The vessel's engine roars to life and the steel deckplates vibrate during the simulated transit, while enemy rounds seem to whistle overhead. After what seems an eternity, the bow-ramp finally opens and everyone exits into an area replete with photographs and artifacts from that battle, including the now-threadbare banner depicted in Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's famous flag-raising image.
In another, depicting the battle of Fox Hill during the Korean War, visitors enter a diorama where the fighting is about to take place. To add to the realism, the temperature is kept 20 degrees lower here than in the rest of the museum, and the sounds of mortar and tracer rounds seem to come out of nowhere from behind the steep mock hill. Bodies of Red Chinese soldiers are stacked under a blanket of artificial snow.
In a third, portraying a hot-landing zone for helicopters on Hill 881 South near Khe Sanh in the Vietnam War, the curators have cut a real CH-46 in half, enabling visitors to climb aboard. After a noisy simulated ride, departing tourists walk down the chopper's ramp where they emerge to a blast of artificial propwash—from overhead fans—to find themselves in the middle of the diorama depicting the hilltop.
Making Scenes Come Alive
"What we've recreated here is a 20-second period of time they call the super-gaggle, between the instant that the chopper landed and the start of the enemy fire," says Long, himself a Vietnam veteran.
Making these scenes come alive are the cast figures representing the troops themselves. Not ordinary museum sculptures, they're expertly crafted "life-casts" of current active-duty Marines, dressed in well-worn, mud-soaked uniforms that make it look as if the figures wearing them have been fighting a war. And they're meticulously positioned to portray a specific role in that particular tableau.
Achieving that effect wasn't easy. Museum designers recruited 75 active-duty Marines for cast-figure duty, and a New York studio immersed their faces and bodies in liquified plastic to make forms for life-casts. No detail was spared. To enhance the realism, sculptors made an effort to match each Marine's military occupational specialty to the one the cast figure would have had in the battle-scene. The Marines posed doing what they'd do in battle, and held their positions and facial expressions for an hour until the life-cast forms hardened. The cast figures alone cost $12,500 apiece.
Detail and Accuracy
Then the set-artists got to work, building realistic scenes and doctoring both the cast figures and the weapons to heighten the effect. The level of detail is impressive. The cast figures are smeared with mud and blood; some even have chapped lips. The tanks and artillery pieces, which arrived at the museum in pristine condition, have been covered with layers of water-soluble paint that produces convincing mud and rust. A howitzer dug in on a hilltop has flat tires—a common sight in a hot zone.
"As you look at these displays, you can see what it was like in more realistic detail," says Dick Camp, a retired Marine colonel and Vietnam-era combat veteran who is acting director of the history division of the Marine Corps University at Quantico.
Accuracy has been the designers' watchword. In a diorama depicting the defense of Wake Island, the curators discovered that designers had scattered brass shells on the ground from an M-1 carbine, which wasn't used in that fight. They quickly gathered them up and replaced them with shells from .30-caliber rounds.
In one secondary display, which shows how Marines in the early 1800s were sent to the fighting tops of wooden warships to serve as snipers, the museum obtained a copy of the construction plans for the small mid-mast platforms on the recently refurbished 209-year-old USS Constitution, still berthed in Boston Harbor. It re-created that section of its mainmast to hold life-like cast figures in 19th-century uniforms.
There are other interactive exhibits as well. Visitors will be able to stand at the edge of a mock 300-yard rifle range and fire at targets using a laser-equipped M-16. They can experience what it's like to carry a full 70-pound backpack (carefully mounted on a sliding track to help minimize the chance of civilian back injuries). And they can enter a cylindrical sound-pod and hear a Marine drill instructor scream at them (your choice of male or female DI). They also can sit in a working flight simulator and try their hand at being a combat pilot. Guides, many of them combat veterans themselves, will usher visitors through the rooms and answer questions.
For aviation buffs, the museum has actual Marine aircraft on display: a JN-1 Jenny of World War I, a DH-4 DeHavilland mail-pouch plane from the 1920s, two models of the World War II F4U Corsair, an F4F Grumman Wildcat, an F9F-2 Panther (the Corps's first jet fighter), a UH-1 Bell Huey (the Vietnam-era chopper), an A-4 Skyhawk, and a 1970s AV-8A Harrier. Included in the mix is the sawed-in-two CH-46.
While all that may sound glitzy, the museum hasn't ignored its major purpose—to chronicle the history of the Corps for Americans. Much of its vast floor-space is apportioned to depict four major eras—World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the current global war on terrorism. Each section has secondary rooms that elaborate on the theme, from the fighting on Wake Island in World War II to the landing at Inchon during the Korean War. The museum also contains traditional display cases showing rifles and other small arms.
Other displays depict highlights of the history of the Corps. Besides the scene on the fighting top from the Constitution, a tableau shows Marines in the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900-01. There's a 50-painting collection of combat art. And there's a replica of the Revolutionary War-era Tun Tavern, where the Marines conducted their first recruiting efforts in Philadelphia.
The museum also seeks to give visitors a glimpse into the process of transforming new recruits into Marines. Besides the DI sound-pods, the museum has acquired pieces of one of the school buses that carry the newcomers to boot camp and the barber-shop that gives them their regulation buzz-cut haircuts.
Not surprisingly, all this wasn't cheap. The atrium-centered structure and its contents have cost $100 million so far—$60 million has been provided by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation and $40 million by the Marine Corps itself—and the museum is planning to spend another $40 million to $50 million expanding the complex to include a theater, art department, and armory. Reaction so far, in the series of walk-throughs that officials have conducted, has been enthusiastic. "Every Marine wants to see this place," Lieutenant Colonel Yost says.
By necessity, Jack Carroll, who spent his war years in the 1940s island-hopping as part of an antiaircraft battalion and now lives in Bradenton, Florida, did a quick tour. But he says the odds are that he'll be back again for a longer stay.