Things were quiet in the corner of the sprawling Vancouver Veterans Administration campus where I parked and entered the Vietnam War Memorial Garden. I felt reluctant to enter the pathway lined with thick bamboo planted to symbolize the jungles and villages of Vietnam. I did enter. The effect was sobering. But it’s a short path and leads to an open memorial area with benches, a pleasant area even on a grey day. When you go, look up and you’ll see the “Lady Belle,” UH-1 Huey helicopter placed high over the memorial.
The garden and memorial is next to the Veterans Museum housed in a 1940’s brick radio communications building. The transmitter provided communication between Pearson Airfield, a mile away, and Army Air Corps aircraft. It needed to be placed at a distance to minimize signal interference from the airfield. The museum was opened in 2006.
Experiencing the Veterans Museum
It’s a small three-room museum but the contents represent the activities and sacrifices of veterans dating back to the late 1800s through today. The museum is run by volunteers. I found their enthusiasm and depth of knowledge of military history one of the reasons to visit. Viewing interpretive displays, looking closely at the detailed models and listening to the stories and history as told by the volunteers made things come alive for me.
I met with William J. Hill, Jr. who volunteers with the museum five days a week and Larry Jones who is a frequent volunteer. Hill explained, “When I retired I decided to volunteer with the VA and they assigned me to the museum. Once I came here, my friends who also enjoyed military history followed.”
Jones explained that his family’s involvement in the military is one reason he volunteers. “My Dad served in Korea and my Great Grandfather fought in the Civil War.,” he shared. Jones is African-American so I asked him a bit more. He explained that his Great Grandfather was a slave and was smuggled out of Virginia to freedom. At that point, he joined the Union Army. It was stories like this that Hill and Jones share with visitors that provide fascinating background to many of the displays in the museum.
Both Hill and Jones are involved with other military hobbies and groups. They participate in military re-enactments and take their replica uniforms and equipment seriously. In fact, they have been in several movies and share educational displays at schools and events. “I have a dozen pair of glasses so I can be authentic whether I am portraying a soldier from the Spanish-American War or representing a Buffalo Soldier,” Jones explained.
As we walked through the displays I learned from both of the men. They are well versed in military history and can explain each display and how artifacts and uniforms came to be donated.
Historic Chapel Memorabilia
The area where the modern buildings of the VA Campus now stand, was once part of a large U.S. Army presence in Vancouver. The Vancouver Barracks, established in 1849, was the first U.S. Army base located in the Pacific Northwest and was active until after WWII.
As the old buildings were torn down to make way for VA services in Vancouver, a few things from a historic chapel were saved. They are now housed in the Veterans Museum. You can see the top of the original steeple, a colored glass window and an interesting pair of mosaic murals said to have been made by Italian prisoners of war. The pieces of the mosaic are made of linoleum.
While I was looking at the murals, Hill pointed out a raised area of the floor. “That is where the huge back-up generator for the building was placed,” he said.
As we toured, Hill showed me two radio controlled 1/16 scale model tanks. Twice a year, the second Saturday in June (anniversary of D-Day) and the second Saturday of September (the time of Fort Vancouver’s Candlelight tours), groups of RC tank enthusiasts bring their tanks to the grounds for simulated battle. On the September date, there are often re-enactment groups there too.
When You Go to the Veteran’s Museum
To get to the Museum, enter the Vancouver Veterans Affairs campus from East Fourth Plain Boulevard, opposite St. Johns Boulevard. Go west past the Center for Community Health (Building 17). Follow POW/MIA Road as it turns south to the Veterans Memorial Garden, next to the museum. I was pleased to find that there is free parking in the area.
Visiting the museum and listening to the stories of the volunteers brought military history alive for me. It would be an ideal place to go for a young person studying history, a military history enthusiast or a veteran wanting to reminisce and pay respects to those who served and sacrificed.
They are open in winter Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and in summer, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. For more information call 360-737-1433 during museum hours.