The U.S. Army’s French Treasures on Display in Virginia

The U.S. Army has inaugurated a free museum devoted to its history and its soldiers’ experiences south of Washington D.C. A “front door” to life in uniform spanning 185,000 square feet, with France playing a role throughout. The galleries are brimming with objects and personal accounts in a testament to French-American friendship forged in the fires of the War of Independence, the American Civil War, and two world wars.
The National Museum of the U.S. Army, in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. © Duane Lempke/National Museum of the United States Army

What is the difference between an instrument of war and an instrument of memory? The nuance is often very subtle. Take the case of an old rifle exhibited at the National Museum of the United States Army, which has two names engraved on the butt: “M. Teahan” and “Kitty.” A few years after the Normandy landings, maybe inspired by these inscriptions, a local farmer picked up the abandoned M1 Garand and kept it for 72 years. In 2016, a French general by the name of Patrick Collet managed to identify its original owner: Private Martin Teahan, an Irishman from the Bronx, a joker, and an enthusiastic jitterbug dancer, who trained as a radio operator with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was 20 when he was killed in Normandy on June 6, 1944.

In the World War II gallery, someone standing before this simple rifle might begin picturing the life of this young American paratrooper. What was running through his head when he jumped out of the plane? Perhaps he was thinking of Kitty? Was he scared? Did he suffer? The inanimate object – 9.5 pounds of wood and metal – has become a medium for history among the 1,398 artifacts on show. The same questions come to mind throughout the room, with exhibits including a helmet, a pocketknife, a faded map of the Cotentin Peninsula, and a landing craft used to bring soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division to Utah Beach. “We are not a museum of stuff,” says Paul Morando, the chief of exhibits – a civilian employed by the Department of Defense. “Whenever possible, we try to make a connection with the individual soldier.”

This is a unique approach. In pursuit of the collective, the military tends to homogenize its members’ personalities. This is reflected in the uniform, the marching, and even the motto of the United States, E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one.” But in an era in which conflicts in the Middle East have negatively impacted the Pentagon’s reputation (just 45% of Americans said they trusted their armed forces in 2022, compared with 70% five years earlier), the museum has chosen to place individuals at the center of its exhibitions. According to Susan Fazakerley-Smullen, the director of communications, this is a gesture of recognition towards soldiers past and present. “Without these persons willing to serve, there wouldn’t be any Army.”

The museum lobby, where a number of pylons pay homage to the “ordinary men and women” who distinguished themselves in the U.S. Army. © Dave Burk/National Museum of the United States Army

Built on the grounds of Fort Belvoir, a military site in Virginia, with interiors and layouts developed by Design and Production Incorporated, the latest acquisition by Chargeurs Museum Studio, the museum opened on November 11, 2020 – Veterans Day in the United States. Inside the stainless steel and glass building set among trees, rows of commemorative pylons accompany visitors through the lobby and into the first gallery. Each one features an engraved face and another story. Renowned poet Joyce Kilmer was killed by a German sniper during the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918. Enid Pooley was posted to France as a switchboard operator, one of the 223 Francophone “Hello Girls” recruited by the U.S. Army during World War I. She passed away on August 24, 1977, four days before her veteran status was officially recognized. James Rookard, a Cleveland native, drove a truck along French roads, supplying Allied troops as they marched from Normandy. Aged 19 in 1944, he was drafted into an army that mostly reserved menial tasks for Black soldiers.

“We don’t avoid politics – we talk about the good and the bad, and the changes – but our focus is the soldier’s experience,” says Paul Morando, who served for six years in the Army Reserve. “You and I will never fight through the haze and the mustard gas of the Meuse-Argonne,” said General Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the museum’s inauguration. “We’re not going to hear the whiz and the snap of [bullets] while assaulting the last 100 yards of Omaha Beach […]. But we can come here – we can see the relics and hear the stories through the eyes and the voices of the individual soldiers who endured so much for the cause of freedom.”

Twelve-pounder cannons like this one, developed by Napoleon III, were used by both sides during the American Civil War. © Dave Burk/National Museum of the United States Army
Used by the U.S. Army and nicknamed Five of Hearts, this Renault FT-17 tank took part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in October 1918. © Duane Lempke/National Museum of the United States Army
A few square feet of the Argonne Forest, complete with five American soldiers leading the charge, have been carefully recreated in the gallery about World War I. © Spc. Ian Miller/National Museum of the United States Army

250 Years of French-American Relations

The U.S. Army was born even before the founding of the United States. Its origins date back to the Continental Army, which was created on June 14, 1775, amid the first shots fired in the War of Independence. It comprised 80,000 soldiers, who had to be trained and above all equipped. Most of the supplies came from France, including uniforms, cannons, bayonets, and some 60,000 muskets, sent from the Manufacture Royale de Charleville in the Ardennes in 1777. Several of these weapons are exhibited in the gallery devoted to the revolutionary era, which also covers the Siege of Yorktown. In the fall of 1781, 8,845 American and 7,800 French soldiers fought in the battle that ended the war. “I saw the haughty Britons yield and stack their muskets on the field,” wrote Sergeant Joseph P. Martin, who joined the Connecticut Militia at the age of 16, in his memoirs.

While not as well known, France’s support for the United States did not stop with the independence of the Thirteen Colonies on September 3, 1783. The French industrial sector also contributed to the American Civil War, with both sides using the 12-pounder “Napoleon” cannon, named after the emperor who helped bring about its design. A bronze model from 1857 is presented in a battle scene with four Union artillerymen around the piece. Captain Claude-Etienne Minié’s conical bullet was another fearsome French invention, whose stability and impressive range had devastating effects on the human body. Shown in a nearby glass case, a yellow femur bears the marks of this industrialized warfare, with a finger-sized lead projectile lodged in the fractured bone…

The World War II gallery shows, among many other artifacts, a landing craft used in the Normandy landings and an M4 Sherman tank that took part in the liberation of France and the Battle of the Bulge. © Dave Burk/National Museum of the United States Army

The galleries focused on the two world wars contain the most French-American relics. In the display cases, visitors can admire a helmet worn by Sergeant Alvin York, the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War I, and the repatriated, embalmed body of The Mocker, a pigeon and feathery “hero” who completed 52 missions before receiving the French Croix de Guerre. One section features a reconstruction of a patch of no man’s land, complete with five doughboys leading the charge. They are flanked by a 1917 Renault tank used by the U.S. Army, whose steel armor still has visible bullet holes. Three khaki jackets belonging to the Myers brothers, George, Paul, and Frank, are hung in another area. “All three fought in France in 1918 before returning home to Pennsylvania,” says museum director Tammy Call, her voice filled with emotion. “Frank’s daughter recently gave us their dog tags and letters and pictures.”

The most moving exhibits are the soldiers’ many personal accounts. Their stories are told through loudspeakers, on postcards written while on leave, and on large touchscreen kiosks. One example is a card sent by a soldier to his grandmother in 1918: “I am still in France and [I] feel fine and dandy. But [I] don’t think much of this country for there is too much rain […]. I think the sun will look pretty good when I get back.” Another is an audio recording of Sergeant George Davidson, who operated a barrage balloon on Omaha Beach as part of the only African-American unit to take part in D-Day: “I believe the Lord was on my side because if He would have let just one of those tracers hit those […] shells on our landing ship, it would have been all over.”

Article published in the May 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.