Did you know that the oldest Army engineering battalion in the U.S. dates back to 1636 and the Massachusetts National Guard? That the Military Police date back to General Washington’s army? Or what a tunnel under the Vietnam deltas looked like?
My husband, Joel, and I, along with our friends Barbara and Bill Jessee, learned all that and a great deal more on a fascinating visit to Fort Leonard Wood, the Army’s Maneuver Support Center of Excellence. We spent the day wandering through four top-notch Army museums took a close look at a piece of the Berlin Wall, drove through some historic countryside, and lunched in the base PX.
Sprawling across 100 square miles of rugged Ozark terrain and fronting on I-44 at St. Robert, Fort Wood is only about an hour from the Lake and welcomes anyone who wants to look around, play golf, visit a 100-year-old school house, sit in on one of the dozens of graduations that occur throughout the year, or tour the museum complex. We spent our time at the museums —and had to leave before we had seen nearly enough.
When we arrive at the big brick building that houses the Engineering, Chemical Corps and Military Police Museums we are greeted by Cyndi Riley, a military retiree who is now curator of collections.
Cyndi fills us in about the base and the John B. Mahaffey Museum complex, which were opened in 2004-2005. Fort Leonard Wood became a permanent military post in 1941, when U.S. officials began to believe that we would become involved in World War II. Today it is one of the largest training bases in the country, supporting 7,000 on-base military personnel and 13,000 family members, and is a hub for 55,000 retires and family members. Almost 10,000 civilians work there every day and as many as 80,000 military personnel from all branches of the service come through Fort Wood for more than 200 different training courses. And the base is growing —as you drive around, it is hard to miss the $450 million in construction projects that seem to be everywhere.
Cyndi explains that the museum complex salutes the three units that are permanent parts of the base: the Chemical Corps, Army Engineers, and Military Police. Another exhibit, across from the building where Cyndi is headquartered, is Fort Wood’s World War II museum, a group of 12 “temporary mobilization structures” that were used as barracks during World War II and again during the Vietnam War. Between the World War II complex and the main museum building is an outside collection of “hard skin” vehicles — tanks helicopters, flamethrowers, boats and missile launchers.
These are not museums of glass cases full of guns. These are scenes with uniformed figures in appropriate surroundings that give you a feel of the trenches in World War I, the Mexican frontier in 1848, winter at Valley Forge, or —fascinating to us who had grown up in the 1960s and 70s—the tunnels in Vietnam. Along with the life-size dioramas and displays, we read short accounts of individual heroism that really bring history to life.
Page 2 of 2 - Cyndi tells us that only about 10 percent of the artifacts, weapons, uniforms, flags and other materials are on exhibit at any one time. Then she takes us to a World War I Chemical Corps display depicting the animal GIs. This particular exhibit, she says, has proved so popular the staff has left it in place. It’s no wonder: we gape at dog and horse models wearing goggles, boots, coveralls and gas masks and wonder whether the “uniforms” frightened the animals, no matter how well trained. Then we imagine their roles in carrying messages and saving gassed soldiers’ lives. Like the exhibits of human soldiers, this depiction of the four-footed members of the military is totally compelling.
We fan out through the three indoor museums, each bringing our own backgrounds to what we see. As a history buff, I love the immersion dioramas, which really help me picture what military life is—and was—like. Bill, who was in the military, and my husband, who wasn’t, share stories of being kids during World War II, and my chemist-husband is particularly interested in the story and equipment of the chemical corps, which had its beginning during the darkest days of World War I.
Across the street, Barbara and I duck inside the barracks of the World War II museum, and observe the 1940s-era office where an orderly/supply officer distributes mail, mans the phones and sends telegrams. We see where Italian and German POWs were confined, and we are able to imagine sleeping side-by-side with other recruits on the cots in the World War II barracks.
Cyndi has told us that the only difference in the barracks during the years between World War II and Vietnam—one of these buildings is furnished like it was in the 1960s -- was that metal mirrors in the latrines were replaced with glass, wooden toilet seats replaced with plastic and that cots became bunk beds.
We leave for lunch at the PX food court a few blocks away, but return to see more. Before the day is out, we are all four steeped in Army history —and ready to come back another time.
One last thing. Cyndi made a point of telling us that since Fort Leonard Wood is home to the Army Military Police, and trains Military Police units all year long that there are more MPs per square mile at FLW than anywhere else in the world. Be warned! My husband got a ticket.