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National Museum of the Marine Corps, Quantico, Va.

Step inside this steel-sided room, and you are in a Higgins boat headed for a beach erupting in shellfire. Battleships blast their 16-inch guns from the waves nearby. Gull-winged Corsairs roar close overhead, and Japanese gun rounds clang off the boat’s armored sides. A dark volcanic island looms up; a rugged mountain to the left is clouded in gunsmoke. And in a corner of the room, a teenage girl with glasses cringes away from the noise, covering her head with her coat until a forward door opens like the landing craft’s bow ramp, and a voice commands you onto the black sands of Iwo Jima with shouts of “Move out! Move out!”

That girl—and most of us, in fact—will never fully understand what it was like to hit the beach at Iwo Jima, or Eniwetok or Saipan or Okinawa. But those few minutes of authentically reproduced chaos at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., are as close to amphibious warfare as civilians are likely to get. That is the main point of the great new museum—a state-of-the-art effort to put the viewer in the individual Marine’s boots, to convey the gritty reality behind the fabled motto Semper Fidelis.

The first impression one gets is of glass and steel vastness. A shining shaft thrusts out of the broad entry hall 210 feet into the sky, its angle suggesting the flagpole that five riflemen and a Navy hospital corpsman raised over Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. Suspended from the ceiling are two of the Marines’ beloved Vought F4U Corsairs, the planes that skimmed the battlefield supporting grunts in World War II and Korea. Among the other aircraft above are a fragile Curtiss Jenny biplane from the early Banana Wars and a Harrier jump-jet, a fighter-bomber whose counterparts are busy in Middle East combat today. Straight ahead is high gray ironwork leading to decks above, like the superstructure of a troop transport. It looks down on a floor tiled in swirls of tan and blue, remindful of Pacific atolls, where Marines are shown in mid-struggle as they breach the log seawall at Tarawa.

Together these paint a symbolic picture of the Marines’ 232 years of service on land, sea and in the air. This one broad hall and the exhibits in it would be worth a day’s trip if displayed at Camp Lejeune or at Pendleton. At the Quantico museum, 45 minutes south of Washington, D.C., it is just the introduction to a moving, technically superb narrative of United States Marine Corps history.

It begins with recruits arriving by bus at boot camp and hearing the not-so-soothing voice of their drill instructor for the first time. Indeed, a real DI is pictured glaring out from the wall, addressing the visitor chin to chin as though he or she had just faced right when the sergeant said left. There were quiet chuckles and glances of recognition between gray-haired veterans as they heard familiar epithets branded on the fallow brains of generations of recruits at Parris Island and San Diego.

During my visit, at least two-thirds of the crowd seemed to be Marines—old and young—and their families. None had performed sniper duty on the topmast far above the deck of a sailing ship, or in World War I trenches, both depicted in the museum in convincing detail. But there were a few who had fought in the Pacific War—I met one, in a wheelchair, who had been at Peleliu. There were more who had been in Korea. They could have been among the 1st Division Marines fighting their way along the frozen road from the Chosin Reservoir, in a display so realistic that the visitor literally feels the chill wind on his neck. And there were still more who recognized the steaming jungle of Vietnam, remembering the Phuoc Valley and Khe Sanh, punji stakes, ambushes and the haunting rattle of enemy AK-47s.

The enthusiastic youngsters on hand may have been most impressed by the gleaming aircraft, artillery and interactive features such as the electronic M-16 firing range and the flight simulator. But I suspect that other old Marines were most touched, as I was, by sudden reminders of far-gone places and departed friends.

There is a wall covered by 6,000 globe-and-anchor insignia sent in by retired Marines, each one representing a brother Marine killed at Iwo Jima. There are thousands of faces, like that of Captain Ike Fenton, a 5th Marines rifle company commander snapped by David Douglas Duncan in the dark days of the Pusan perimeter in 1950, his face portraying the bottomless weariness of every combat infantryman since warfare began. There is the unforgettable silhouette of Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez, leading his platoon over the seawall at Inchon, minutes before he fell on a grenade to save the lives of his men and was mortally wounded. He is also on the wall of Marines who earned the Medal of Honor.

The word that seems to recur at every turn of the museum is “real”: Those are real aircraft, real tanks and real cannons. The adventure of landing on the beach at Iwo is made as authentic as it can be without one getting wet. The docents who run tours and explain exhibits are retired Marines. There is never a false note, never a display that overruns the facts. There doesn’t need to be.

Probably only a few museums in the United States can be described as truly moving experiences, but genuine emotion was evident the day I was there. Some unlikely thing could set off the emotions, take you by surprise. For me it was the photograph of an unnamed young Marine, close-cut and spit-shined on graduation day from boot camp, and his girlfriend, looking up adoring and proud. They are so young, so perfect, so innocent. I wished I could hug them. But if I did, knowing what I know, I would probably cry.


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here