I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, GA last week. I was truly impressed! It took me almost a week to get this post and pictures uploaded but I finally did (in time for the 69th anniversary of Operation Overlord’s D-Day launch to boot)!
Located on the south side of Columbus, it’s actually on Fort Benning property. You’ll go through the entrance to Ft. Benning and just past the entrance, go right (they have a Hampton Inn right there too so lodging is available on site) and it’s a short hop there.
The museum opened in 2009 and includes a parade grounds where all of the Ft. Benning graduations are held. I arrived around noon on a Friday and missed two graduations earlier that morning (apparently, one was presided by a 4 star General who graduated from OCS there). There were some lingering families touring the museum but it wasn’t very crowded.
When you enter the museum, you are greeted by volunteers and there is no fee to tour the exhibits but donations are gladly accepted. I was greeted by Mr. Smith (I think his first name was Philip and I promise that was his actual last name) who was retired Army after serving 35 years and tours in Vietnam. He was incredibly knowledgeable and gave excellent tips to navigating the museum.
If you proceed to the 2nd floor (Mezzanine Level), you’ll find the Fife and Drum restaurant. I couldn’t get hours for the restaurant nailed down as apparently they are open until they aren’t busy and then they just close. But I had the club sandwich and seasoned French fries and I would highly recommend starting there (Mr. Smith did too if you are hungry but he would recommend the cheeseburger).
In addition, the Mezzanine Level also houses the Ranger Hall of Honor, OCS Hall of Honor, and a Medal of Honor wall. There’s also a display paying tribute Bruce Gibson, OCS graduate who was killed in Vietnam. Now, I head back down to the Entry Level (first floor) and get started.
Back on the Entry Level, you start where you entered the museum. You’ll go in at the Infantry Badge Monument. You can’t tell from the entry way, but behind the monument is the entrance to the exhibits. It’s a decent winding walk and it’s dark, but it takes you through life-size (the detail is amazing) exhibits from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I and II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and finally the War on Terrorism. Each section goes through daytime and nighttime lighting (it was dark to me no matter what lighting time it was) and has life-size wax figures that are modeled after real soldiers. The museum selected battles from each war and the display reflects the battle (there is a constant sound of artillery going off so prepare yourself). They have a real Huey in the Vietnam section and one of the Gliders from WWII (it’s 1 of only 5 left in the world). There are videos of documentaries going on all over the place but it’s built into the exhibit. So as you pass the paratrooper in the WWII section, the video is playing on the open parachute canopy. It was difficult to get pictures but I did what I could (see below). Mr. Smith says watch the top of the helmets – when there is a bright light on top, take the picture then. I tried this several times but I got so caught up in looking at the detail, I missed it several times!
When you come out of the Hall as they call it, you end in an exhibit of hodge-podge as I call it. It shows all the training they do at Fort Benning and history all over the place of the Infantry as a whole. There’s even a place where you can find out information (obviously, not classified) where infantry are located in real-time (technology has come quite a long way) throughout the world. For those inclined, there’s an interactive exhibit for visitors to shoot (blanks I’m sure) off rifles at the Rifle Range. It was interesting to look around and see the exhibits.
Now we head down to the Gallery Level. Here there are various exhibit halls. Two exhibit halls weren’t open (Armor & Cavalry and Defining the Nation galleries) but the rest were open and this was where I was the most impressed with the museum. This level also houses the Hall of Valor and the Infantry Theatre which shows a 12 minute film (I kept missing it). There’s also a Combat Simulator exercise for those who wish to participate interactively.
I started in the International Stage exhibit which covered World War I. They have recreated a trench for visitors to walk through (although I’m guessing this one was bigger and cleaner than the actual trenches). Again, artillery fire throughout the trench. They have all sorts of propaganda posters displayed from that time period (we are so used to the WWII posters, I didn’t realize/remember that WWI had their own posters to fight against the “Huns”). There are displays of uniforms (including the Red Cross), weapons, artillery, and pretty much anything you can think of and this isn’t limited to the U.S. They show the “enemy” uniforms and weapons also.
I then went through the World Power exhibit – this focuses on World War II. They had an Army jeep and when I first enter, they have the Franklin Roosevelt speech “A Day in Infamy” mixed with speeches from Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin playing over loud speakers (in a continuous loop) which was really moving. They also have uniforms and artillery but they also had an interactive map of all the battles in both the Pacific and Europe where you could pick one and it would give you an overview of the battle. They had a small exhibit showing items from a concentration camp (remember, this is an Infantry museum, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is located in Washington, D.C.) as well as these amazing 3-D models of aspects of the war (the one pictured related to the bombing in Germany if I remember correctly). Kudos to whoever built those models – they were amazing!
Next, I went through the Cold War exhibit and this has items from Korea, Vietnam, and Grenada. Again, they have uniforms, artillery, and other memorabilia. They also have what they call “In Country Experience” which is an enclosed walking path set in the jungles of Vietnam. It’s incredibly dark, artillery is going off all around you, and you hear stories from veterans about their experiences. My first thought was “Please don’t let me run over someone or fall down, I can’t even see my shoes, and why is it so hot in here??!!” but my next thought was of the book I had just read, “The Soldier’s Story: Vietnam in Their Own Words” by Ron Steinman. If I didn’t know any better, I would promise that the audio track was taken from that documentary. I couldn’t validate it so I’m not 100% certain. The volunteer, Mr. Smith, said the first time he walked through it, it scared the business (I’m censoring) out of him. So think about it before walking through there. They also have a walk-in bunker with actual sandbags (thankfully, no actual rats). There’s also another Huey in this exhibit as well. The detail the staff here has put into these exhibits will blow the visitor away! Very impressive indeed.
The final exhibit I visited was the “Sole Superpower” walk through and this focuses on more modern-day warfare such as the War on Terrorism. This was the most technologically intensive exhibit with a variety of touch screen displays to learn more about the artifact being viewed. This did feature a very realistic dog from the IED detection group so I’m still hoping I wasn’t viewing the best taxidermy has to offer!
If you’ve never visited this museum, I would highly recommend it. The pictures I took don’t even come close to doing it justice. It’s located in southern Georgia so if you don’t like heat, I would probably avoid it during the late spring through early fall. Mr. Smith says the museum tends to get busy on graduation days and steady Wednesdays through Fridays and you can always call ahead to see what they have going on that day. They are closed on Mondays but open the rest of the week. You can get more information on the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center by clicking here.
Because this was such a great experience, my parents and I are visiting the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Virginia in November (oddly, we’ll be there during the Marine Corps birthday celebration and Veteran’s Day). Have you been to either of these museums or other military museums? What were your thoughts? Any recommendations?
I’ll be back tomorrow with Factual Friday (topic: D-Day). So until then…