Sunday, July 21, 2024

Places to visit on one tank of gas: National Museum of the Marine Corps

The exterior of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, modeled after the iconic photo Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson
The exterior of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, modeled after the iconic photo Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. (Photo courtesy Ben Swenson)

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 on a tank of gas or less. Buckle up and hit the road.   

The fringes of Virginia’s Interstate highways are not known for their remarkable architecture, but there is a place south of Washington, D.C., that stands as an exception. Towering far above Interstate 95 is a leaning spire that is at once unusual and familiar.

The identity of that puzzling structure might fall into place once you realize it is just outside Marine Corps Base Quantico. The 210-foot-tall mast calls to mind an iconic image from the nation’s history: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.

The distinctive building, designed by Curtis Fentress with the historic image as inspiration, belongs to the National Museum of the Marine Corps, a spirited collection of exhibits that chronicle the long history of that branch of service.

Part of an exhibit on women in the Marine Corps. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson
Part of an exhibit on women in the Marine Corps. (Photo courtesy Ben Swenson)

The United States Marine Corps, billed by many as the most elite and versatile of the military’s regular branches, had its origins in 1775 at the dawn of the American Revolution. It remains an active and integral fighting force today.

Visitors to the museum do not need a personal connection to the Marine Corps to find meaning within its walls. The dynamic galleries fill in the details of the watershed moments in American military history through the lens of the Marine Corps.

From Williamsburg: Click here for driving directions

The museum spans the entirety of the Marine Corps’ nearly two-and-a-half century history, from one of its earliest engagements among the BonHomme Richard with Captain John Paul Jones in the American Revolution to the modern deployments in the Middle East.

The collections, and the staff members stationed throughout the galleries, excel in bringing to life the poignant details of the lives of the men and women who have earned the title of Marine through the years.

“Imagine a Marine on watch, passing long hours without much to do,” said staffer Mark Lotz, pointing to one of the oldest known artifacts from the Marine Corps – a scrimshawed powder horn from the 1770s that reads, “Independence & Liberty or Death.”

While it’s easy to see the artistry inherent in scrimshaw like this, Lotz and his colleagues give a more robust portrait of this and all the material culture on display by offering context on a personal level.

Lotz knows firsthand the difficulties of service. He, like almost all the other staffers, was in the Marine Corps, in Lotz’s case, in the 1980s. Just don’t call him, or any other of the branch’s veterans “former Marines.”

“We’re all Marines,” he said. “Some of us are just a little bigger amidships.”

Lotz said that many visitors to the museum appreciate the sacrifices Marines have made through the years, but are often moved by the lesser-known tales of sacrifice and humility.

The Medals of Honor received by Daniel Daly. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson
The Medals of Honor received by Daniel Daly. (Photo courtesy Ben Swenson)

There’s the story of Dan Daly, for instance, one of only seven U.S. Marines to receive the Medal of Honor twice – once for actions in the Boxer Rebellion, then again in Haiti in 1915.

What Americans often don’t know, said Lotz, is that Marines like Daly continued to live normal, productive lives, proud but mostly quiet about their military decoration.

Daly was a bank guard in New York after retiring from the Marine Corps. His Medals of Honor, which are on display at the museum, turned up after his death in a kitchen drawer in the home where he lived.

Multimedia exhibits throughout the museum serve to preserve the oral histories of Marine Corps veterans. One video chronicles the thoughts of the so-called Montford Point Marines, named for the segregated, World War II-era boot camp where the branch’s first African American enlistees trained.

The aging Marines who tell their stories onscreen explain the conflicting feelings of pride in their service and pain in the fact that society at the time treated them as second-class citizens.

IF YOU GO: The National Museum of the Marine Corps is open every day except Christmas and is free of charge. For more information, visit the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ website or its 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

A depiction of the landscape at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918. Photo courtesy Ben Swenson
A depiction of the landscape at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918. (Photo courtesy Ben Swenson)

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