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Located in Triangle, Virginia, adjacent to Marine Corps Base Quantico, the National Museum of the Marine Corps is right off of Interstate 95 – just 36 miles south of Washington, D.C. and 76 miles north of Richmond.
It’s early morning on Memorial Day, so the traffic on I-95 is comparatively light. We think this is a perfect day to learn more about this storied branch of the military and pay our respects to the Marines who devoted their lives to defending our country.
Along with us is 71-year-old Sgt. Charles (Chuck) Siglin, USMC. He served from 1964 to 1968, and is a Vietnam veteran. As he reminds us, “There is no such thing as an ex-Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine.” His pride in the Corps is palpable and we are looking forward to seeing the exhibits through his eyes and experiences.
Pulling into the museum’s parking lot, row after row of handicapped parking spaces reminds us of the many wounded and elderly war veterans who come to visit. The museum was built as “a lasting tribute to Marines – past, present, and future.”
The 120,000-square-foot structure, situated on 135 acres, has a soaring design reminiscent of the flag-raisers at Iwo Jima. As we walk toward the entrance, many men and women can already be overheard retelling their service memories to their companions.
Past the main entrance we enter a huge, circular space called Leatherneck Gallery. It’s an impressive area with full-size aircraft suspended from the ceiling and a floor display of a Sikorsky UH-34D helicopter complete with extremely life-like Marines running for cover, depicting Operation Starlite in 1965.
The first exhibit we see depicts the rigorous stages of transforming naïve recruits into Marines. This is where having our own Marine escort becomes so relevant. With a chuckle and head shake, Siglin relives the extreme experience that is boot camp, beginning the minute a new recruit steps off the bus. His 14-week intensive training took place at the Corps’ training facility on Parris Island, South Carolina – a most inhospitable climate in the dead of August. Other veterans passing through this room similarly groan at the memory of boot camp. Through the museum’s interactive exhibits, we can hear the fearful discussions of the recruits on the bus. We step on the yellow footprints for the verbal dressing down by the drill instructor. As Siglin tells us, “They tear you down, to build you back up.”
Moving on, we begin the Marine Corps Legacy Walk, a journey that began around a raucous table at Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern on November 10, 1775 – a date celebrated every year by US Marines stationed around the world. Beginning with a 200-strong unit of Continental Marines splashing ashore in the Bahamas during the Revolutionary War, the Corps has gone on to win distinction fighting for our country on land, sea and air all around the world.
The heroic marches and shore landings of the Marines are well documented on the walls and in the life-size displays chronologically ordered throughout the museum. The accompanying sights and sounds draw us into the scenario, almost making us feel as though we are participants.
Tour guides add heart-pounding embellishment to each exhibit, from the Marine brigade fighting in France during World War I, to the drive to develop and man amphibious assault ships and landing craft during World War II. Full-sized tanks, aircraft and bunkers, sounds and scenery take our breath away. The museum has gone to great lengths to make this an immersive experience.
The exhibit on the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War – dubbed “Frozen Chosin” – is in a room filled with cold air and we feel we are right there in the frigid bunkers. As we exit the Korean exhibit and round the corner to Vietnam, the outgoing, proud demeanor of our Marine Corps veteran changes dramatically. “Just bear with me,” Siglin says. “This is digging up a lot of emotion. None of it good.” He served in Vietnam from May of 1967 to June of 1968.
Using the museum’s illustrative displays, he points to the area marked “Leatherneck Square” – near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – where some of the most horrific battles were fought. “I was there during the Tet Offensive, in some of the worst locations like Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, and Hue.” Being so close to the DMZ meant a non-stop mix of heavy bombardment and combat with the North Vietnamese Army.
It is difficult to fathom what these Marines endured, and the lingering emotional and physical toll on them. But he says he would do it all over again. “I’m proud to be an American and honored to be a Marine.” As he reminds us: “All gave some. Some gave all.”
The National Museum of the Marine Corps stands as a monument to the core values of the Marine Corps: honor, courage, and commitment. Visiting is a powerful and fulfilling experience and is a must-do trip.
Additional exhibits and galleries will be opening through 2022, including a Hall of Fame, Sports Gallery, Hall of Valor, an art show featuring World War I art, and an exhibit exploring how the Marine Corps has been portrayed in the movies. Admission to the museum is free.