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The Huntsville, Alabama, US Veterans Memorial Museum: Inside Look

A most serendipitous find.

The Huntsville, Alabama, US Veterans Memorial Museum: Inside Look
Huntsville, Alabama, is a simply fascinating place. Home to a variety of massive space-related organizations, the enormous Saturn V rocket is visible for miles around. (Shutterstock, JHVEPhoto)

I have family in Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville is best known for Redstone Arsenal, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and the extraordinary Space and Rocket Museum. You know you’re getting close from any direction when you can spot the mighty Saturn 5 moon rocket towering above everything else. It’s a genuinely cool place. Huntsville is a really big-small town. In recent years, Huntsville has consistently been rated the nicest place in America to live. Tech companies from all over the planet maintain sprawling research facilities there. Huntsville’s Cummins Research Park is the second-largest in the country. Huntsville, Alabama, is one of the most well-educated cities in America. I love the place.

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This is the most extensive collection of privately held military equipment I have ever seen.

Just Killing Time

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One afternoon, during a recent visit, everyone in the family was occupied but me. I Googled something to the effect of “guy stuff to do in Huntsville Alabama.” There at the top of the list was the US Veterans Memorial Museum. I punched the place into Maps and struck out in search of adventure. The US Veterans Memorial Museum is right in the middle of town. Getting there took maybe ten minutes. The exterior is pretty underwhelming—just a typical big metal military-style building. However, when you get closer you begin to get a sense of what awaits you therein. Outside of the place there is, among other things, a vintage UH-1H Huey helicopter, a Vietnam-era PBR river patrol boat, and an M-48 Patton tank.

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The museum Huey saw combat in Vietnam and was one of the aircraft used in the making of the epic Mel Gibson war movie We Were Soldiers. There is also a Desert Storm-captured French-built Iraqi Panhard armored combat vehicle replete with its HOT anti-armor missile system. The museum’s Russian BTR152 armored personnel carrier was captured by the Israelis during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. After a quick spin around the outdoor exhibits I ventured inside. The museum is, like most, a non-profit organization. They do not charge admission, though they gratefully accept donations. I dropped a fiver in the box and moved out smartly. Wow, just wow.

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Vehicles

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The unremarkable exterior of the US Veterans Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Alabama, belies the wonders that await you inside.

This museum is absolutely incredible. I had no idea all the cool military stuff that was awaiting me within its hallowed walls. The main floor is literally packed with beautifully-restored vintage military vehicles. Trucks, tanks, APCs, half-tracks, wheeled vehicles, and helicopters of a bewildering variety are packed side by side into every available square foot of the place. The earliest example is a WW1-vintage Liberty Class-B truck. Sporting a maximum payload of 6,000 pounds and a top speed of 14 miles per hour, the Liberty Class-B features solid rubber tires, carbide headlights, and an updraft carburetor.

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Every era of American military history is represented. The museum’s Cobra gunship sports a nice reproduction M134 minigun.

This example rolled off the lines in 1918. The tanks are sexy cool, but it is trucks that win wars. This was the US Army’s first. The WW2 collection is just to die for. There is an M3 Stuart light tank as well as the later M5A1 version. Their welded hull M4A3 Sherman mounts a short-barreled 75mm gun and is powered by a V-type 8-cylinder water-cooled Ford 500hp gasoline engine. Sitting nearby is an M42B1 flamethrower Sherman with a cast hull. An M24 Chaffee anchors the line on the far end. There is a gorgeous M3A1 half-track that looks showroom new. A beautifully-restored M8 Greyhound six-wheeled armored car rests nearby. A WW2-standard CCKW 2½-ton 6x6 cargo truck of the sort that supported the Red Ball Express rounds out the WW2 stuff.

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With a combat weight of 33,500 pounds and a top speed of 36 mph, the M5A1 light tank was one of the fastest armored vehicles in the European Theater of Operations during WW2.

The M42A1 Duster was a post-World War 2 weapon. This tracked antiaircraft vehicle sported twin 40mm Bofors guns in an open turret. During the 
Korean War, the Duster earned a devastating reputation when employed against massed Chinese infantry assaults. It was also extensively and effectively used in Vietnam. There are M113 and M114 Vietnam-vintage Armored Personnel Carriers rounding out the lot. Those are the high points. There are lots more to include a prototype Hummer and the Ford Pygmy, the original pattern vehicle for the ubiquitous jeep. More on that later. Each vehicle has a story, and they are all magnificently restored and maintained. I found out later that the M5A1 and the M24 have live cannons that are registered with the BATF as Destructive Devices. There is a live 37mm antitank gun in the collection as well.

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This early M3 Stuart light tank sports a riveted turret that made it a deathtrap in action. When hit, the rivet heads had a tendency to shear off and bounce around the fighting compartment.

Guns, Lots and Lots of Guns…

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This place is a gun nerd’s dream. There are weapons absolutely everywhere. Crew-served machineguns, mortars, and recoilless rifles sit just behind ropes. Thompsons and Grease Guns hang from the tank turrets. There are several of those cool old massively oversized training weapons on display as well. However, the really neat stuff is behind glass. This is arguably the finest privately-held collection of military weapons I have ever seen. That’s saying a lot. I seek this stuff out. The guns are divided up by era and combatant nation.

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There is an impressive collection of weapons from the War Between the States as well as the Spanish-American War. Vietnam gets a nice display as well that includes a pristine M21 sniper rifle, a Type 2 milled receiver AK, an M79 grenade launcher, and a Swedish K submachine gun. A Colt SP1 AR-15 stands in for an M16. A vet bringback Chicom Type 53 carbine has “Kill Americans” painted on the stock in Vietnamese. However, most of the really good stuff hails from World War 2. The American display has one of pretty much everything.

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There is a gas trap M1 Garand along with an M1A1 paratrooper carbine with all the period-correct widgets and ditzels. From the 03A3 Springfield to the Browning Automatic Rifle, the M3 Grease Gun, and the M1A1 Thompson, it is obvious at a glance that whoever put this together spoke vintage weapons fluently. The Japanese exhibit includes both Type 11 as well as Type 99 light machineguns alongside a nice knee mortar and all of the standard bolt-action fare. Their Type 2 takedown paratrooper rifle is particularly striking. Sprinkled liberally among them all are scads of helmets, flags, field gear, and handguns.

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German stuff includes a gorgeous MP43/1 along with an MP40 and an MG42. There is a G41 as well as a G43 along with most all of the Third Reich service handguns. Original but deactivated grenades and scads of cool battlefield pickups lend flavor. The Italian selection includes a Beretta 38A SMG along with Carcano rifles. French weapons include an MAS 38 SMG and an MAS 36 bolt-action rifle. The British weapons display features the expected array of Lee-Enfield rifles to include a nice No 4(T) sniper rig and a Sten Mk II. There’s a PPSh among the Russian stuff as well. Most but not all of the small arms are behind glass, but you can still get close enough to read the markings and absorb the particulars. Any drool stains on the floor came from me. I’m sorry about that.

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Aircraft and Sundry Cool-Guy Stuff

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Visitors can get up close and personal with the vintage combat vehicles in the museum’s expansive collection.

Most everything discussed thus far came from veteran donations and private collections. Uncle Sam’s contributions include an AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter along with an OH-58 Kiowa aeroscout. As a former Army aviator who flew both machines back in the day, I fear I had to linger a bit around those two. It was sobering to realize that the combat aircraft I flew operationally now reside in museums, but I am indeed pretty old. There is also an H-13D universally known as the helicopter from the movie and TV show MASH. That one was indeed a bit before my time. The museum is just chock full of cool little gems.

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There is a CG4 Waco glider of the sort that soared into Normandy and Bastogne being restored on the museum floor. Displays of period uniforms and souvenirs brought back by veterans from war zones around the world lend ample real-world flavor. All of the displays have explanatory placards filled with developmental and operational details. The gun nerd committed to his craft could kill as much time as was available poring over the particulars.

Recommended


Ruminations

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There is indeed a lot of really cool stuff to do in Huntsville, Alabama. The Space and Rocket Center is Smithsonian-grade and draws 650,000 visitors a year. The Huntsville Museum of Art downtown hits well above its weight as well. However, if you are the sort who reads Firearms News and you have an afternoon to kill in or near Huntsville, I’d powerfully recommend you swing by the US Veterans Memorial Museum. The US Veterans Memorial Museum is off the beaten track. As a result, unlike so many other public attractions these days, it isn’t crowded. The displays are well-reasoned, and the collection is just to die for. It is also steadily growing. Check it out; MemorialMuseum.org. You’ll thank me later.

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Tank Trek

Vintage military vehicles are expensive collectibles these days. A surplus fighter plane that the government literally could not give away in 1947 is $3 million or more today (No kidding, Uncle Sam tried to sell surplus warplanes for three years after WW2 and nobody wanted them. State of the art fighters like the F4U Corsair and P-51 Mustang went for a bit more than a grand apiece full of gas and ready to go. Eventually the program lost so much money the planes were just scrapped). The museum’s M8 Greyhound was purchased as surplus from the Italian Air Force. The M5A1 Stuart light tank held in the collection of the US Veterans Memorial Museum has a compelling story. Built by Cadillac during World War 2, this feisty little Stuart saw combat with Canadian forces.

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After Germany surrendered, the tank was passed on as surplus to the Portuguese Army. From there it was eventually sold as a lot of seventy-five identical vehicles to a Georgia construction company for farm and utility use. Alas, a tank can do lots of cool things, but it’s really a poor substitute for a tractor. These seventy-five Stuarts were auctioned off to collectors in the 1980’s at a good price. The last example I found that sold online was in decent shape and went for $176,000 at auction in 2021. Yeah, we all wish we could hop into a time machine and zip back to 1984 to invest in surplus tanks.

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The Ford Pygmy

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The Pygmy was Ford’s submission to the competition that eventually produced the ubiquitous Army jeep. This vehicle is literally one of a kind.

Arguably the most compelling vehicle in the expansive collection of the US Veterans Memorial Museum is not a tank, attack helicopter, or APC. It’s a jeep. However, this isn’t just any jeep. This is the Ford Pygmy. This is the literal father of the ubiquitous Army jeep. This Ford Pygmy was one of two hand-built prototypes delivered to the Army in November of 1940 to compete to become the Army’s light reconnaissance and command car. The Pygmy in the museum is the oldest surviving example of the vehicle that eventually went on to become “the Jeep.” Ford engineers built the Pygmy from existing parts drawn from their commercial and agricultural vehicles. It featured a canvas top, a fuel tank underneath the driver’s seat, and a folding windscreen formed from tubular steel. The headlights were mounted on hinged brackets that allowed them to be pivoted into the engine compartment to illuminate the powerplant for maintenance. These features were later incorporated into the final Willys jeep as well.

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After the competition was complete, this Pygmy remained the property of the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford II donated this adorable little truck to the Henry Ford Museum in 1948. Mr. Mwawww was at the right place at the right time and bought the Pygmy at auction at the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village in Detroit in September of 1982. It resides in the museum in its original unrestored but superlative condition. The next-coolest jeep progenitor was the Bantam BRC-60 serial number 1007. This vehicle was delivered to Camp Holabird for testing on 29 November 1940, six days after the arrival of the Pygmy. That particular Bantam was donated to the Smithsonian collection and can be seen at the Heinz Pavilion in Pittsburgh today.

The Man Behind the U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum

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The Veteran Museum is just full of personal artifacts like this vet-bring back P08 Luger.

I sought out the curator to get the backstory behind this remarkable place. Much to my amazement, much to most of the stuff in the museum came from a single man’s collection. He’d sooner not be identified, so we will call him Mr. Mwawww. Mwawww is short of “Man We All Wish We Were.” Mr. Mwawww was a compulsive gun nerd who came along at the right place and the right time. Nowadays, it would legit take a billionaire to amass a collection of military weapons and equipment of this sort. The Shermans alone can push a million dollars apiece in good shape. In the case of this gentleman, he started out as a career Ordnance officer in the US Army. That job took him all over the world and made him plenty of good contacts. There was a time not so long ago when stuff like this was actually affordable for normal people. Prior to the Internet, there was not the national and global market for military collectibles that there is now. More often than not, the key to success was not necessarily having really deep pockets, it was just knowing the right people.

When you had the right reputation among those circles word got around. If some old farmer had a derelict tank in his field he wanted to get rid of or some veteran passed away and his survivors didn’t like guns in the house somebody gave you a call. Additionally, these connections led to obscure surplus auctions and similar hidden opportunities. That’s where most of this stuff came from. Most of the guns are live but disabled for display. Some of the machineguns are registered DEWATS (Deactivated War Trophies). I’m pretty savvy to stuff like that myself and most everything looked like the real deal to me. A little bit at a time as the years went by, it all began to stack up. Before you knew it, Mr. Mwawww had a museum’s worth of cool-guy stuff. Thankfully, he graciously chose to share it with the rest of us. The end result is indeed pretty epic.

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The M42A1 Duster antiaircraft system was devastating against lightly-armored ground targets.
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This modest little museum is absolutely awash in guns. I mean they are everywhere. For the serious student of small arms, this is Candyland.
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This place is just full of tantalizing stories. The venom- ous screed “Kill Americans” hand-painted on the stock of this Type 53 carbine speaks to a very different time.
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Here’s something you don’t see every day. Of the 5.4 million M1 Garand rifles produced during WW2, roughly 48,100 were of the early “gas trap” sort. Most were scrapped. Naturally the Veterans Museum has a pristine example.
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I have yet to encounter a government military museum with such an extensive collection on display.
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The Japanese Type 2 takedown paratrooper rifle was an interesting novelty. The weapon broke down into two halves secured with a sliding wedge.
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We’ve really just scratched the surface. The selec- tion of vintage weapons at the Veterans Museum in Huntsville, Alabama, really is world class.
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