The Military Vehicle Collection at Fort Lewis, Tacoma, Washington

The front entrance to the Fort Lewis Military Museum

The front entrance to the Fort Lewis Military Museum

Drivers heading south on busy Interstate-5 from Seattle, WA, will see an eye-catching, ornately decorated, old white wooden building just off the freeway on the right. This historic building now houses the FORT LEWIS MILITARY MUSEUM — the West Coast’s only U.S. Army certified museum.

Although the museum is open to the public, visitors must first register at the Visitor’s Center. A 10-minute drive south following the museum signs is a large white building with steep inverted-V black roofed wings jutting out at either end — it can’t be missed because it’s surrounded on two sides by an eclectic group of military vehicles.

Vehicle exhibits
Nearly two dozen vehicles are spread out on concrete pads set into a grass field, 10 to 20 paces apart. Covering almost 70 years of US military vehicle development dating from WWII to present, the impressive variety of vehicles even boasts a few foreign battle acquisitions. It’s a military vehicle enthusiast’s dream.

The olive-drab vehicles look well preserved, like they’ve just rolled out of the factory; laminated information cards hang from their sides. With a little imagination, I could envision this convoy rolling along through the countryside in WWII France or Belgium. A few of the more modern and recent spoils of war look somewhat battered, taken as souvenirs from Operation Desert Storm.

“After a number of units brought back equipment from Operation Desert Storm, we soon had several heavy weapons and vehicles captured from Iraqi forces,” museum curator Alan Archambault tells me.

Enormous and medium tanks, guns pointing menacingly upward, an amphibious truck, armored personnel carriers, armored cars, half-tracks, trucks, jeeps, mobile artillery and anti-aircraft vehicles, a fast attack vehicle and ambulances sprawl over the five or six acres.

I marveled at how war leads to the creation of ingenious specialized vehicles as I walked around an M3A1 half-track troop transport, an M-8 Greyhound armored car, a DUKW 353 amphibian truck and an M5 high-speed tractor. These very different WWII utilitarian vehicles are still used today in many countries.

Cold War armored vehicles and guns were also well represented. There’s an M-60 Patton tank, made in 1962, one of 15,000 variations produced, and still used in many third world countries.

The massive 64-ton M-103A1 American heavy tank was a rare find — only 300 were ever built. Nearby, I saw a large tank that looked suspiciously like a Soviet T-54, and as I got closer, saw it was a Chinese Type 59 main battle tank knock-off of the Soviet T-54. About 1,500 of these were in service with the Iraqi Army in 1990, and all were either destroyed in Operation Desert Storm or scrapped. As newer models in the T-series replaced it, the T-54s were flogged off to third world nations.

More exotic light vehicles featured were the XR 311 Experimental High Mobility Vehicle (aka “Dune Buggy”) of 1970s, and the Experimental Fast Attack Vehicle now used by Navy SEALS.

Curator, Alan Archambault

Curator, Alan Archambault

“During 1972-1991 the 9th Division was posted here,” Archambault informed me. “They used and tested a number of wheeled vehicles including several prototypes for the humvee and the fast attack vehicle, which is basically a modified dune buggy.”

Having toured the vehicle park, I entered the museum. A plaque mounted on the front wall states that it was origi-nally the Red Shield Inn and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Used as a guesthouse and officer’s quarters until 1972, it subsequently became the home of the Fort Lewis Military Museum.

The museum’s mission is to preserve and interpret material of historic significance to Fort Lewis and the military units that have served there. A secondary theme is to show how the U.S. Army played a major role in the exploration, settlement and defense of the Pacific Northwest.

I saw a group of 20 soldiers in BDUs listening to Archambault as he delivered a military history lecture as part of their heritage training. Archambault’s enthusiasm about the museum’s fascinating artifacts shows through — he’s an ex-Army man, even participated in reenactment and historical groups, and early on decided he wanted to be curator in a military museum.

Museum displays
I started at the Soldiers of the Northwest Gallery and proceeded through the Fort Lewis Gallery of Valor, The Army Family Gallery, the Art Gallery, America’s Corps Gallery, and finally the Fort Lewis Gallery. The collection of memorabilia, artifacts, uniforms, weapons, military art, equipment, dioramas, photographs, documents and many other pieces is one of the finest in the country.

A diorama of a barracks scene depicts Army life; military uniforms of all belligerent parties in WWII including a Ger-man officer; Japanese army weapons and uniforms, and a comprehensive WWII weapons exhibit are amongst the thousands of artifacts displayed.

A “Women in Wartime” display shows women on the home front and in uniform; there’s a model of an Army nurse in uniform, stethoscope around her neck. A GI mans a machine gun in the ruins of a Belgian house in a WWII battle scene. Another shows two soldiers in a WWI trench.

History lesson
I soon learned there’s a lot of history at Fort Lewis. Named after Meriwether Lewis, leader of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Northwest from 1804-06, it was founded during WWI as Camp Lewis.

Since becoming a permanent Army post in 1927, it’s served as a major training and personnel centre for many divisions during WWII, the Korean and Viet-Nam wars. Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower served at Fort Lewis from November 1940 to June 1941, as chief of staff of the IX Army corps.

The Cannon Shop has a number of interesting militaria for sale; books, historical documents, coins, Civil War replicas, postcards, military pins, commemorative coins, model cannons and guns, caps, uniforms and much more.

I spent over two hours touring the vehicles and museum and I was impressed. The well-preserved vehicles and the overview of Fort Lewis’s proud role in US military history kept my interest. This museum is well worth visiting if you are in Washington State looking for a professionally designed military museum.

Fort Lewis Military Museum (PO Box 331001, Fort Lewis, WA 98433; phone 253/967-7207 or visit the museum website, www.fortlewismuseum.com. Fort Lewis website, www.lewis.army.mil). Hours are Wednesday-Sunday, Noon to 4 p.m.
To get to the Visitor’s Center take Exit #120 off I-5, about 45 minutes south of Seattle. You’ll need your driver’s li-cense, vehicle registration and proof of insurance to get a Temporary Vehicle Pass and Visitor Badge.