War Memorial Museum of Virginia

By Robert Hausman

One of the oldest military museums in the area, the War Memorial Museum of Virginia was founded on Armistice Day in 1923 by members of the American Legion’s Braxton-Perkins Post 25 of Newport News, Virginia. The Legionnaires’ intent was to preserve the memory of those who had served and sacrificed in “The Great War” (World War One). The Legion is still actively involved as evidenced by the museum’s charter which requires that at least two members of the board of directors also be members of Post 25.


Located near the scenic James River, the museum was chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1936 as the official state repository for war related artifacts. It is administered by the city of Newport News. The War Memorial Museum of Virginia Foundation, inc. is an independent organization also lending support.

The first displayed artifacts were primarily souvenirs from World War One. Today, the collection comprises over 60,000 items and a reference library of over 20,000 volumes within its over 25,000-square-feet of exhibition space. Not all of the artifacts are displayed at any one time.

The museum’s mission is to study, preserve and exhibit the role of warfare in American history from 1775 to the present. The glorification of war is not intended. The intent is to place into context the revolutionary aspects of war through social, political, economic, technological and historical perspectives.

Much of the display area is divided into specific themes, such as “The Black Soldier” and “Women at War,” which tell the stories of some of America’s lesser-known war effort contributors. The “America and War” exhibit shows what life was like at home while the war was going on. Yet another display tells the story of World War Two through the Axis powers’ viewpoint. “Hampton Roads: Point of Embarkation” focuses on the relationship of the local region (a major port area) with the military. The museum’s 125-seat classroom/theater presents such shows as “Hollywood at War” featuring commercial films with a war theme.

During the first week of August, the museum usually hosts a Vietnam veterans meeting which includes the display of a replica Vietnamese village. The week before Christmas is often given to Civil War commemoration where military re-enactors dressed in blue and grey re-enact Civil War battles.

Artillery Exhibits

Among the exhibits seen at the time of the author’s visit, was an M42 twin 40mm SPAAG self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. Developed in the early 1950’s under the designation T141, the M42 shares many of its components with the M41 light tank as produced by the Cadillac division of General Motors Corp. By the time production was completed in June 1956, over 3,700 M42’s had been built.

The M42’s power-operated turret traverses 360 degrees and the 40mm guns elevate from minus 3 degrees to plus 85 degrees. The rate of fire is 120 rounds per barrel per minute with maximum anti-aircraft range of 5,000 meters, and 9,475 meters in the ground fire mode. Powered by a Continental or Lycoming AOS-895-3, 6-cylinder air-cooled supercharged petrol engine, its maximum road speed is 72.4 km/hr and effective range 161 km. The only variant is the M42A1 with fuel injection which yields greater fuel efficiency. The U.S. Army replaced the M42 with the M163 230mm Vulcan self-propelled anti-aircraft gun system.

Another exhibit takes the form of a Russian manufactured SP-72 self-propelled 122mm artillery piece. Used by the Iraqis and captured by American forces during Operation Desert Storm, it came to the museum by way of the Quantico, Virginia military installation. Many experts believe one reason why the Iraqis were so quickly defeated was their reliance on non-standardized equipment. Iraqis used whatever military equipment they could get from sources all over the world. The logistics of maintaining this material requiring a wide variety of parts and firearms in miscellaneous calibers, many believed, worked to defeat them.

The Iraqi tank was thought to be inoperable at first. Upon arrival at the museum, a forklift was used to nudge the tank to move it into its intended exhibit space when its engine suddenly started up and the tank (which was in gear) suddenly lunged forward. Luckily the man steering it overcame his surprise and managed to stop it.

A well-preserved U.S. 10-ton Holt Caterpillar artillery tractor of World War One can also be seen. As the trench warfare on the Western Front progressed, horse teams became increasingly unable to move the ever-more-heavy artillery pieces through the mud. This tractor filled the bill very well. Thus use of tractors also heralded the debut of the half-track design to the battlefield.

A nice-looking Stuart Light Tank M5A1 is set on a shiny tiled floor inside the building. Designed and standardized in September 1942, it replaced the Light Tank M5. Larger and better sealed access hatches, as well as the addition of an escape hatch, an improved mount for the 37mm gun, and better vision devices were among the upgrades. Powered by twin Cadillac 121hp engines, it weighs 33,907 lbs. and could move its crew of four at speeds up to 40 mph.

Also on exhibit is an American-built Renault Six-Ton Tank M1917. To equip the newly formed Tank Corps in 1917, American production was begun based on this French design. Due to differences between the European (metric) and American measurement systems, a virtual redesign was necessary. Initial orders were placed for 1,200 vehicles and these were later increased to 4,400 units.

Working under the supervision of the U.S. Ordnance Department, the M1917’s building contractors were C.L. Best Tractor Co., Van Dorn Iron Works and Maxwell Motor Co. A total of 64 vehicles were completed by 11 November 1918, only 10 of which arrived in France before the end of the war. U.S. light tank units in France were equipped with about 514 Renault tanks built by the French. A total of 950 of the American version of the tanks were built when production ceased. They continued in service as the standard U.S. light tank until 1931.

Unconventional Exhibit

A rather unconventional exhibit was located within the men’s restroom. Entitled, “Obeying the Call of Duty,” the evolution of military field disposal technology was presented from the year 1865 onward through vintage photographs and drawings. Illustrations of various latrines, a Quartermaster Corps excreta incinerator and the use of oiled burlap to fly-proof latrines are shown and explained. Also displayed were World War Two-era “Sad Sack” cartoons with latrine humor as the subject matter.

Yet another exhibit focuses on the integration of the sexes within the armed forces during the 1940’s, from a sanitation point-of-view. W.A.C. latrines were required to be inside or attached to the barracks for safety and privacy. The group toilets which serviced men were also supposed to be partitioned. No training center except Fort Des Moines had conformed to standards. Since it was believed the women would occupy the camps for a short time, they were relegated to the outside latrines with uncurtained toilets and men’s plumbing fixtures. By the 1970’s however, these discrepancies had been corrected to provide for appropriate facilities for both sexes. (This author did not visit the museum’s women’s restroom to see what might have been exhibited there.)

To Visit

Situated in midtown Newport News, the museum is centrally located between Williamsburg and Virginia Beach. The address is 9285 Warwick Boulevard, Huntington Park, Newport News, Virginia 23607. From I-64 take the Mercury Boulevard/James River Bridge exit south and follow U.S. 258 to its intersection with U.S. 60. The museum is just three blocks west, next to the YMCA. For more information call (757) 247-8523.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N9 (June 2001)
and was posted online on May 9, 2014


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