Scattered across America are scores of museums, institutions and foundations that serve as repositories of our cultural and automotive heritage. Many of these places are not considered automotive museums, per se. But the historical perspective they provide is no less important when it comes to revealing the many ways the automobile has impacted our world. Beginning this month, we’re going to turn the spotlight on some of these hidden gems—fascinating places where the past sits waiting to be discovered by anyone willing to spend the time seeking it out.
Formed as a non-profit in 1986 by current museum director Randy Withrow, the organization behind the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Alabama, moved into its current building in 2001. What waits inside the unassuming building is virtually unparalleled in the sheer number of military pieces on display.
Tanks, Jeeps, Firearms and More
Housed in a former airplane hangar-turned-correctional-facility-turned-museum, the VMM now features an overwhelming number of artifacts from the Revolutionary War all the way up to and through the most recent Gulf War conflicts. Virtually invisible from the outside, this concrete and steel building hides a veritable treasure trove of military ephemera. Rows upon rows of tanks, jeeps, helicopters, firearms, uniforms and assorted memorabilia line the interior of the building, filling it almost to capacity.
Upon entering, visitors are met by a series of display cases that help show the evolution of military technology and attire. Organized chronologically, these displays help show the natural progression and evolution of military technology and the tools of war from early flintlock firearms up through contemporary automatic rifles and scores of forgotten small arms in between. Not surprisingly, given the wealth of artifacts from the period, the World War II era is the best represented throughout. From the Allied forces to the Axis countries, elements of each are represented in some form or another.
The automotive centerpiece of the museum’s entire collection is the 1940 Ford Pygmy GP – 01, the oldest surviving jeep. Placed in line with a handful of its progeny, this original Ford pilot model for the vehicle that would arguably help America and its allies win the Second World War is perhaps the most historically significant piece in the museum’s collection. Maintained in its mostly unrestored condition, the Pygmy is a rolling time capsule and repository of ideas that would ultimately be coopted by the Willys and Ford joint venture to produce hundreds of thousands of jeeps for troops fighting in theaters across the globe.
Fascinatingly, the subsequent models on display alongside the Pygmy help illustrate the development of the jeep from its initial iteration through the apex of its design and construction. Sitting alongside the Pygmy is a 1941 Ford GP prototype (chassis number 9911), 1941 Willys Model MA (chassis number 85504), 1941 Bantam BRC 40 (chassis number 1208) and, an early example of the final production WWII jeep, a 1941 Willys MB “slat grill.” Each jeep features design elements incorporated from the original prototype, which help to showcase the evolutionary development of this revolutionary vehicle design.
Beyond the prototypes and pilot model, the jeep history lesson continues as the museum is filled with an expansive array of military jeeps all of the way until the end of the ¼-ton vehicle’s military career. Tucked away in crevices next to Sherman tanks and a half-track can be found a Willys MB, an unrestored Ford GPW, 1960s Mighty Mite M22A1, and Vietnam-era M113 Armored Personnel Carrier and M38A1 Jeep.
A Mecca of Military Memorabilia
While the VMM’s overwhelming jeep collection may well be reason enough to see this fantastic museum, it’s the wealth and sheer scope of historic military artifacts that prove to be the real attraction.
From examples of early tanks to a restored circa-1880 “40 and 8 boxcar” (so named for its ability to carry 40 men or 8 horses) given to the military as a gift from France following the conclusion of the war, each and every item on display at the VMM represents an important piece of a much larger historical narrative.
In the case of the boxcar, visitors learn that it was actually one of 49 previously used to transport troops and horses. Following the war, these boxcars were filled with wines and cheeses, clothing and other assorted items, and delivered to the United States—one to each state with Washington, D.C. and Hawaii sharing a car. After its contents were raided by scavengers in period, Alabama’s boxcar served as roadside signage for a local cave for a number of years before being rescued and restored by a group who helped return it to its former glory. Today, visitors can enter the boxcar and view various artifacts from WWI.
Memories of War
Surveying the many displays at the VMM, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the collection and vast wealth of history on display. The whole of one wall is dedicated to artifacts from American, British, French, German and Japanese WWII forces, featuring everything from small arms and rations to clothing and knives. Seeing each side-by-side helps paint a more complete picture of the soldiers of the era and gives contemporary viewers a sense of what their fathers and grandfathers went through.
It’s this last element that proves to be one of the museum’s primary objectives. For veterans visiting the museum, seeing many of these vehicles and items again for the first time in decades unleashes a flood of memories and stories that are then shared with friends and family. In this, the museum functions as a conduit for those who were there, sparking memories and opening the lines of communication for what may have been previously difficult subjects to properly put into words. Faced with the very artifacts that helped define these pivotal moments in their lives, veterans are able to open up and share their stories.
According to museum director Randy Withrow and several of the volunteers we spoke with, this is what the museum is truly all about. While the items themselves serve as a tangible reminder of our past, it’s the very personal feelings and stories behind each that help the rich history they contain truly come alive. In this, the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum is far more than a collection of military surplus; it’s a direct link to vanishing generations and an invaluable repository of our cultural history.