JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The Lewis Army Museum opened its doors to the Joint Base Lewis McChord community for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic with its annual main event, Living History Weekend, July 31 and Aug. 1. At the event, living historians dressed in military uniforms from the U.S. Army and German Army during World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War shared their historical insights and artifacts such as weapons, tools and storage compartments from their specific era.
Additionally, the museum cleaned and improved its exhibits and was open for public viewing for the first time since completing renovations for its new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system.
Once finished with this project, they’ll also have a special room to make sure precious artifacts will be well preserved for the future, said Heidi Pierson, the curator of the Lewis Army Museum.
“The public has been missing coming here, so to us, it means a lot to be able to host an event like this and to invite people back because a museum isn’t really a museum without the people,” Pierson said. “My favorite thing (about today) is these living history interpreters, who give up their time. They bring their own personal collection out here in order to teach people about history and just make it a well-rounded, wonderful event for everyone.”
The living history historians at the event showcased military equipment and uniforms from across multiple eras of U.S. military history, as well as from the German military.
World War I
Two members of the PNW Great War Group, which reenacts historical trench warfare battles and teaches the public about World War I, dressed in German military uniforms displaying their wide array of body armor and weapons at the Living History Weekend event. One member wore a uniform from the beginning of World War I, a gray wool uniform, and the other from the end of World I, a Waffen SS uniform was worn by soldiers loyal to the German political party.
They wore different uniforms to outline a timeline that displayed the intricate differences of the uniforms that showed how they adopted and adjusted fire throughout the war, said Caleb Lundeen, a former medic Soldier from the 254th Military Police Component.
Lundeen also said that this is one of the many events they attend throughout the year to show the public a German soldier from World War I's perspective.
World War II
Lawrence W. Sandlin, a Marine Corps and Army retired veteran and living historian from Olympia, Wash., shared his vast collection of 10th Mountain Division’s gear from World War II. The 10th Mountain Division, 87th Infantry Regiment, the Army’s first mountain unit, was activated out of JBLM after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He started his collection after discovering that no one in the Pacific Northwest was showcasing any of 10th Mountain’s equipment from World War II.
“I want to maintain the history behind it by showing it. I want to preserve and honor the people of World War II,” said Sandlin, a member of “Friends of Willie and Joe,” a World War II living history group committed to the preservation of military history. “When you display it that way, they can see it, (for) some people during that time it brings back memories and it lets other people know what they had to go through”.
Across the way from Sandlin’s 10th Mountain Division artifacts, attendees could view a 1942 Chevrolet 4x4 ½ Ton Truck. The Truck made a 5,884-mile trek across the Alaska Highway, formerly known as Alcan Highway, to celebrate its 70th anniversary. The highway was built by the U.S Army Engineers and Canada to connect the Alaskan Territory for the military to transport supplies during World War II, said Stephan Gay from Shelton, Wash., and founder of Friends of Willie and Joe.
“Talking to the people about the vehicles is a lot of fun. And it’s fun to see all the historic military vehicles,” said attendee Scott Harriage, who visited from Olympia, Wash.
The first thing attendees saw at the Living History Weekend event was an enormous green Army Patrol Boat River, commonly known as a PBR, surrounded by living historians decked out in either Army camouflage or Navy tropical jungle greens from the Vietnam War era. Members of Gamewarden of Vietnam Past to Present, a national organization of brown water sailors, maintain the boat, which was built in Bellingham, Wash. Their name stems from their time spent in the murky brown waters of Vietnam.
For Richard Linn, a retired Navy veteran of Shelton, Wash., being a living historian is therapeutic. It allows him to come together with others like himself to talk about what happened to him in Vietnam, said Linn, a member of The Gamewarden of Vietnam Past to Present.
Two years ago, he was able to bring his two great-grandsons to see the Lewis Army Museum learn about military history, Linn said.
“It’s a learning experience for the younger generation,” Linn said. “Places like this are very important for America’s youth to learn and carry on and pass onto their children, without that it’s all lost. “
In Vietnam, Linn was an engineman in the Navy Task Force 116th who repaired PBRs seven days a week. The PBRs in Vietnam patrolled the Mekong River Delta to transport people to medical facilities, check legal papers and stop the flow of guns and personnel, Linn said.
Many families attended the event to teach and instill in their children the importance of military history.
Matt Schultes, a commander for the 23rd Brigade Engineer Battalion, brought his family to this event as part of their homeschool curriculum since school isn’t in session right now.
Currently, the Lewis Army Museum has interactive exhibits that include furry animals, Pierson said.
“We try to make sure they feel welcome to be part of (the museum), and in the future, we are going to continue to do that. We would like to take some space out in the vehicle park and make some engineering interaction for kids,” Pierson said.
The museum decided to host a one-day event at the museum in 2018 after receiving interest from living history interpreters at previous JBLM events. Since then, it has evolved into a whole weekend event.
“This event is a great opportunity for visitors to get more hands-on with our military past,” said Pierson. Pierson hopes they will take away an appreciation for our military history.