COLUMBUS, Ga. — The sky, most appropriately for the occasion, is gunmetal gray in late December, and underneath the canopy of clouds I’m standing on the long entrance walkway just outside the National Infantry Museum. I’ve seen dozens, maybe hundreds of museums. But this one, just outside the gates of Fort Benning near the west Georgia city of Columbus, is most impressive.
Impressive not only in architecture, but because it is perhaps the final due for the American infantry.
“I love the infantry because they are the underdogs,” war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote during World War II. “They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.”
The exterior of the museum dedicated to these “underdogs,” which opened in 2009, is reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello with a towering rotunda as its centerpiece.
The entire complex is huge at 190,000 square feet, and from its bronze “Follow Me” memorial of a charging infantryman standing sentry under the rotunda to a series of galleries and exhibits filled with a colossal collection of artifacts, the museum recognizes the Army infantrymen, those grunts, the foot soldiers, the battleground warriors who stood on the front lines of war.
“Our mission is to honor our infantry soldiers, past, present, and future,” says my guide Jim Talley, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam and who was a longtime volunteer of the museum before joining its staff. To say he knows the museum and army history is quite the understatement.
“It’s the largest museum in the Army class of museums,” Talley explains, adding that it’s often called the “Smithsonian of the Army.”
The indisputable showpiece is the “Last 100 Yards,” an upward sloping ramp surrounded by 360-degree dioramas featuring scenes of infantrymen from America’s greatest wars.
Beginning with Yorktown and meandering through battles at Antietam, Soissons and Normandy in France, Corregidor in the Philippines, Soam-Ni in South Korea, LZ X-Ray in Vietnam’s la Drang Valley, and Iraq, the dramatic exhibit, with lifelike mannequins fashioned from body casts of real Fort Benning soldiers, is mesmerizing and based on the notion that the last 100 yards of any given battle belong to the infantrymen who charge ahead to the battle’s completion.
As I follow Talley through more than 200 years of army history through this cinematic wonder that includes authentic planes, a Huey helicopter, parachutes, and military weaponry, we ascend from the first floor of the museum to the second.
“The exhibit was built upward for the infantry,” he says. “For them, it’s always an uphill battle.”
From there we visit the Fort Benning Gallery, which gives an excellent overview of infantry training, which is followed by a stop at several galleries organized according to certain periods in history.
Plan to spend at least two or three hours wandering through the well-appointed and highly educational snippets of history beginning with “Securing Our Freedoms: 1607-1815” to “The Sole Superpower: 1989-Present.” With lights, sounds, photographs, and artifacts, the galleries have the power to transport you back in time and place you into a page of history.
Nearby is the Hall of Valor, a tribute to the almost 1,500 Army infantrymen recipients of Medal of Honor, the highest award for bravery. A small plaque honors each honoree, and the convenience of computer kiosks allows visitors to look up names and citations of individual recipients.
This spring also brings to the museum the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall, a replica of the original Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.
The replica, a three-quarter scale model, has journeyed to more than 200 cities since 1990. Among those cities was Columbus, where it remained for two weeks in 2010 for a ceremony honoring Vietnam veterans. And now it is back, to be a part of the museum landscape for the next five years and perhaps longer.
“After we saw how meaningful the wall was to our visitors, we knew this would be the perfect place to become its new home,” says Ben Williams, president and chief executive officer of the National Infantry Foundation, which helped found the museum. “This replica is every bit as impressive as the original.”
The museum also hosts an IMAX Theatre, combat simulators, and the Fife and Drum Restaurant with comfort food of salads, sandwiches and burgers. (With any meal, try the seasoned French fries, among the best I’ve ever had.)
I’ve visited the museum twice, and the first time I was fortunate enough to witness graduation ceremonies for the young men and women who had just completed Basic Training at Fort Benning. The experience is somber and emotional as I watched the new graduates with their families, hugging and crying on such a life-changing yet joyous occasion.
Graduation ceremonies take place almost every Thursday and Friday on the parade grounds adjacent to the museum and are worth planning a visit to see them. Just bring a tissue or two for the inevitable tears.
Admission to the museum is free, but donations are accepted.
“All the artifacts are owned by the Army, so essentially they are owned by U.S. citizens, so we can’t charge a fee,” says Cyndy Cerbin, director of communications for the museum.
The museum, a melding of ideas of the National Infantry Foundation and the Army, replaces a crowded, throw-together one that was housed in an old hospital building on Fort Benning.
The newer museum is a gleaming behemoth that instills in you a sense of pride and celebration of the infantry and gives you a renewed sense of appreciation for who they are and what they did for our country. Undoubtedly, myriad stories of courage and valor hum unspoken within these walls.
“The obvious audience for the museum is the military,” says Cerbin, “but it’s for the non-veterans, too.”