QUANTICO, Va.—Lance Cpl. Matthew Stephens, who just returned from Iraq, figures that for the new National Museum of the Marine Corps to truly convey his experience in Ramadi, the exhibit hall would have to be the pitch black of night.
Tourists would have to run, dashing across pockmarked pavement in night-vision goggles, aiming their weapons at every window, tensed for any sound that might be either a cat jumping off a wall or six insurgents about to open up. Their hearts would be pounding, their breath coming hard, the hunger and exhaustion long ago faded to leave behind only adrenaline and, maybe, a bit of fear.
That's how it was for Stephens, anyway.
"You'll never fully understand war unless you were there," he said. "It does a number on your mind."
The museum, which opens to the public Nov. 13, just after Veterans Day, can't replicate the experiences of Marines, who've served in battle since the Revolutionary War. But it will try.
By leading visitors through darkened exhibits, by piping in the whizzes of bullets and the wash of a chopper's rotor blades, the museum's creators aim to educate visitors about the Marines' work in wars that, often, the grunts themselves didn't fully understand.
There will be oral histories about bloody battles, a notebook of letters home from troops and a wall of coin-sized insignias, one for each of more than 6,000 lives lost in Iwo Jima.
"I think the most important thing this museum can do is put you in the position Marines were in and let you draw your own conclusions," said Lin Ezell, the museum's director. "There's no right or wrong answer. We're not guiding. We're just saying, `This is what happened.'''
The museum opens as the United States' civilian and military leadership is struggling with a difficult war that brings near-daily reports of casualties. At any time, some 25,000 Marines are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more than 840 have died.
"I think there's two sides to museums," said Stephens, 20, of Hoover, Ala. "Number one, there's the experience: `Oh my God, they had to do that?' Teaching what they're going through.
"And then teaching for the future: `Man, this is what happens when people start wars?'''
The museum began development in 1999, before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, plunged the nation into its battle with terrorism. It took years for the corps' heritage foundation to raise enough millions in a public-private partnership to hire architects, collect artifacts and figure the best way to tell the Marines' story.
Founders decided to celebrate the grunts, rather than the generals, and to build on the corps' long tradition of inspiring young Marines through its history. The museum includes three "immersion" exhibits that attempt to help tourists experience battles in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Visitors first will be struck by the museum's architecture, a twisting pyramid of glass and steel soaring skyward at an angle that evokes the famous image of the Iwo Jima flag-raising in World War II.
Inside, visitors walk into the expansive "Leatherneck Gallery," a towering atrium strung with Marines aircraft and surrounded by famous quotes etched high in the stone walls.
"Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?" reads one from 1st Sgt. Dan Daly, yelling to his men during a charge in World War I.
Ezell expects the gallery to be a place of reflection, especially for older veterans, who might find the museum dredging up long-ago memories.
"They will have emotions," she said. "You'll confront ghosts and demons and heroes. And yourself."
Beyond the atrium, visitors face combat.
In Korea's Chosin Reservoir, 250 men of the Fox Company hunkered along the icy Toktong Pass supply route, spending five days defending it from Chinese soldiers, said retired Col. Joseph Alexander, a Marines historian from Asheville, N.C., who consulted for the museum and wrote some 800 captions for the exhibits.
Half the men of Fox Company were killed.
To fully explain that standoff, the museum would have to import piles of dead bodies, plunge the temperature to 20 below zero, invoke frostbite in its visitors and keep them awake for days in foxholes, overwhelmed by the stench of human waste and death.
"The smell of war is death," said retired Maj. Richard Spooner, a member of the museum's historic foundation, who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. "It's awful. I'm sorry, but war is a thing that can't be described. But we hope they'll see enough of it to see that strong men have made many sacrifices on their behalf."
In the museum, the moonlit Toktong pass will be a chilly 58 degrees, with the outlines of Chinese soldiers' bodies visible in the snow. There will be flares and the shouts of Marines.
But it won't be war.
"I can't get there. I can suggest it," Alexander said.
In the Vietnam exhibit, visitors pass through the fuselage of a CH-46 helicopter amid the sounds of bullets pinging off the metal and shouts to get the hell off as they descend into the hot zone of Hill 881 South. Nearby, a life-size chaplain kneels over a dead Marine.
"But nobody's shooting at you," Alexander said. "You can't hear the shriek of the mortar coming in, the final blast of it going off and the screams. There's not a cloud of dust to choke you."
Curators spent years gathering artifacts and poring through documents to create the exhibits. The museum reconstructed a bullet-riddled building in Vietnam from an old photograph, and punctured the tire on a howitzer because the tires frequently went flat from flying shrapnel. To re-create the sands of battlefields, curators sent soil samples to the exhibit designers.
The museum holds little from America's current war, but curators already are thinking how best to honor its fighters.
"It's impossible to put into historic perspective what's happening today," Ezell said.
Still, she added, the museum couldn't very well open without something about the war on terrorism. So one room will be dedicated to combat photography and artwork, showing Marines assisting with recovery at the World Trade Center and fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Alexander wants the nation's next generation of politicians and security advisers to visit museums such as this one, to think about what's going on now and what could happen in future conflicts.
"It might make them think about what the sacrifices are," he said. "Here's what the cost is. Is it worth it? Often it is."
ABOUT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE MARINE CORPS
Formal dedication: Nov. 10, with guests and President Bush.
Opens to the public: Nov. 13.
Where: Quantico, Va., off Interstate 95.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; closed Christmas Day.
Phone: (800) 397-7585, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.
Size: 118,000 square feet, to grow to 181,000 square feet.
Current exhibits: timeline of 231 years of Marine Corps history; exhibits on boot camp, female Marines, African-American Marines and the global war on terrorism; immersion exhibits and galleries on World War II, Korea and Vietnam; Leatherneck Gallery featuring historic Marines aircraft.
Future exhibits: Phase II will include the Colonial era, Civil War and World War I.
Source: National Museum of the Marine Corps
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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