From Pearl Harbor to 'Black Hawk Down,' Army's history awaits its museum

Life-size figures in military uniforms will be part the National Museum of the United States Army, which is expected to open next year or the year after.


By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: February 6, 2018

Ashley Hartwell's hand-painted eyes are bloodshot. She has sweat running down her cheek. And beneath her Army helmet, her face is a portrait of tight-lipped tension and do-not-mess-with-me attitude.

She's an image of a U.S. Army military police soldier on a hot day in Ramadi during the war in Iraq in 2006. And although she is made of acrylic resin and stands motionless in a wooden crate wrapped in clear plastic, she looks ready.

The simulated MP, modeled on actual Iraq veteran Hartwell, is among 54 ghostly figures from the Army's past, waiting for the summons to step into the service's $200 million museum, which is now under construction outside Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

The National Museum of the United States Army is designed to be the service's flagship museum when it opens late next year, or the year after, officials said. And as such it will include some of the most powerful artifacts from the Army's history, as well as the model soldiers.

The museum has already selected 1,300 "micro" artifacts and 19 "macro" artifacts - including a World War II Sherman tank and a bullet-pocked World War I tank - for inclusion.

Among the most moving is the humble wreckage of an engine from "Super 6-1," the first helicopter shot down in the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" disaster in Somalia in which 18 Americans were killed.

Also striking is the pile of fused coins found on a desk in the charred ruins of the Pentagon after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

A recent discovery is Japanese American Sgt. Jimmy Mizote's "thousand stitch" Japanese warrior's belt, made in an internment camp by his mother when he joined the U.S. Army in World War II.

Five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur's custom-made, gold- embroidered khaki cap will be included, along with a pack of Coast Artillery brand cigarettes and an enemy bomb courier's motorcycle, complete with hand warmers, that was seized in Afghanistan.

The tiny Bible that POW Mel Nesteby carried on the Bataan Death March will be there, plus an "Abridged Prayer Book for Jews" from World War I and Army Sgt. Gary Uchida's World War II musings scrawled on the sides of his canvas travel bag.

"When we looked for items, we didn't look for the grandest things," said Patrick Jennings, the museum's chief of programs and education. "General Patton's dress coat, or General Marshall's this that or the other. We have some of those things, but really what we looked for were things that reflect the daily lives of average soldiers.

"So when you see a helmet in there . . . it may have been in a significant battle," he said. "That helmet may have been at Normandy. It's not the battle that makes it special. . . . It's the soldier that wore it.

"We have those things that are touchstones . . . in Army history and Army memory," he said. "But to fill in around them, we're just using the average Joe."

Most of the items have already been set aside in special cabinets in the Museum Support Center at Fort Belvoir.

Pvt. Melvin Nesteby, a devout, 21-year-old Minnesota farm boy, had a tiny pocket Bible with him when he was captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942.

He carried it on the notorious Bataan Death March, through years of brutal captivity in the Philippines and Japan, and to his liberation in 1945.

It sustained him during his ordeal, said Paul Morando, the museum's chief of exhibits. It resides in a temporary case in the museum's support center.

The Bible has a snapshot of Nesteby in later life, wearing a coat and tie, on the cover.

Inside, several passages are underlined in pencil.

They are moving, given the cruelty and starvation Nesteby was probably enduring: "Continue ye in my love. . . . Love one another, as I have loved you. . . . I have called you friends," from the Gospel of Saint John.

And from Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: "Whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake."

The museum said that Nesteby donated the Bible to the Army Historical Foundation before he died in 2009.

"That's what carried me through for nearly five years," he said in 2005 during an oral history interview for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. "Rode right here," he said, tapping his left breast pocket.

Other micro items include a white towel that Iraqi soldiers used to surrender to Americans during one of the conflicts there, a baseball cap worn by American helicopter pilot David Redmon during the Vietnam War, and a World War I gas mask for a horse.

The museum will include numerous pieces from the Civil War, but only from the Union side.

The forces of the Confederacy "were not considered the United States Army," museum director Tammy Call said.

Also missing from the Army's collections, at first, were items from the experiences of Japanese American soldiers during World War II, Call said at the support center last month.

So over the past year, experts began visiting the West Coast and Hawaii to solicit such items. "Out of those community visits, we have received just amazing artifacts," she said.

She showed two samples.

One was Mizote's thousand-stitch "Senninbari" belt, a garment made to bestow courage, protection and luck on its wearer.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Mizote and his family were interned along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, first at a camp in California and later in one in Colorado.

His mother made the belt in the Colorado camp when he joined the Army in 1942.

In "an old Japanese tradition . . . as a warrior was going off to battle, the mother would start the belt," Call said. "And the females of the community . . . would all hand stitch" a single small knot.

Mizote's is a wide, white sash with four buttons and is dotted with red knots. In the center is sewn in red thread: "From Mother."

It is ironic, Call said, that this traditional Japanese soldier's garment was made by an interned Japanese American mother for her Japanese American son fighting in the American Army.

An American Senninbari is rare, Call said. "Most of them are destroyed because the sons were embarrassed," she said. "They did not want other soldiers to see or find this on them."

Mizote kept his and wore it, Call said. His daughter, Marilyn Sholian, donated it last year. Mizote died in Portland, Oregon, in 1976, at 57.

Uchida's travel bag was donated last year in Hawaii by his daughter. Call spotted it in a display case in a veterans' clubhouse there, and asked if the museum could display it.

A native of Hawaii, Uchida had been in the 100th Infantry Battalion, known as "the Purple Heart Battalion," because it suffered so many casualties. He was wounded in combat in Italy. The battalion slogan was "Go for Broke."

Uchida carried his bag throughout his service and used it as a kind of diary.

It bears observations like "Latrine detail again," and "G.I.'s Dream - portable foxhole," plus a drawing of Hawaii's Diamond Head behind two figures with a surf board.

Uchida lists places of heavy fighting in the Italian campaign - "Volturno River," "Monte Sarchio," and "Salerno" - and notes "no more dry runs, real stuff now."

There are drawings of scenes in North Africa, a camel, a mosque.

And, prominently on one side:

"Dec. 7, 1941."

"Remember Pearl Harbor."

Some of the items that will be on display at the $200 million Army museum when it opens.

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