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Editor’s note: No need for a plane ticket. Put that passport away. This story is part of a series that features regional attractions outside of the Williamsburg area that can be driven to with less than one tank of gas. Buckle up and hit the road.
A large sign on Interstate 64 in Newport News directs motorists to the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Joint Base Langley-Eustis. When curious travelers find themselves at the imposing gate of a military base, however, many of them get discouraged and turn around.
They should instead continue on, says Claire Samuelson, the director of the museum.
Just beyond the secure entrance of Fort Eustis, the museum showcases dozens of original vehicles and aircraft, along with artwork and artifacts that chronicle the long history of U.S. Army transportation.
“Our primary goal is to educate soldiers about their heritage and history,” said Samuelson, who has also worked at U.S. Army museums at Fort Monroe and Fort Lee in Virginia.
Members of the military and their families comprise many of the roughly 65,000 annual visitors, although the museum is also open to civilians.
Related: Nearly 500 soldiers from Fort Langley-Eustis head home for holidays
Samuelson said there is broad appeal for young and old alike, and welcoming military and civilian families helps the Army with recruitment and retention.
Admission to the Transportation Museum is free with a suggested donation of $4. At the base’s main gate, military police will require all adult civilian visitors to provide government-issued identification along with the automobile’s registration and they will search each vehicle.
The Transportation Museum is one of more than 100 history and heritage facilities nationwide that are part of the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History. At less than a half-hour drive from most points in the Historic Triangle, the Transportation Museum is the most accessible for area residents.
From Williamsburg: Click here for driving directions
Since World War II, Fort Eustis has been the hub of U.S. Army transportation operations and training. Soldiers from Fort Eustis are deployed to support American military operations around the globe.
Fort Eustis is therefore a logical home for many different examples of military machines that have been used to transport people and supplies. All but one of the museum’s vehicles, a reproduced 18th-century wagon, are original and were once used in military service.
These artifacts offer a distinctive timeline of the U.S. Army through the years.
A horse-drawn escort wagon, used to ferry supplies to troops fighting in the Spanish-American war, for instance, offers a sharp contrast to the World War II-era M29 Weasel, a tracked vehicle used to navigate snowy terrain.
The aircraft on display range from the familiar to the downright bizarre. Like the tiny, bubble-topped Bell H-13 Sioux observation helicopter used in the Korean War, to the HZ-1 Aerocycle, which had no cockpit and spinning rotors underneath a tiny platform on which the operator stood.
Often the vehicles offer poignant perspectives on the sacrifices Americans made in foreign wars. The fortified gun truck “Eve of Destruction” was the only one of 300 or more such vehicles that made it back from the Vietnam War, the rest having been scrapped or destroyed.
Military enthusiasts will enjoy the comprehensive explanations and signage in the galleries, along with the extra displays, such as uniforms and original military-themed artwork.
Parents and grandparents will appreciate a few outdoor pavilions which shelter locomotives, railcars, aircraft and trucks. Wide-open spaces accommodate children and not-quite-inside voices.
Samuelson said the museum is always improving its gallery space. Later this year, they will debut an exhibit about circuses, which military experts once studied closely to learn about effective ways to move people and objects between distant places -- exactly the type of mission that soldiers at Fort Eustis have carried out for decades.
If you go: The U.S. Army Transportation Museum has more information about its exhibits and programming on its website and Facebook page.
Ben Swenson is an educator and writer who lives in James City County. His blog Abandoned Country chronicles sites of historic value that have been reclaimed by nature. Swenson can be reached at email@example.com
For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our new travel section, please email travel editor Aaron Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org