If you were planning an attack on the First Division Museum, your most prudent approach would be from the rear. Out front, 11 tanks of many eras stand on a kind of guard duty. The museum calls it a “Tank Park,” which sounds friendly enough, but it looks pretty much impregnable.
The museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, the former estate of legendary Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, puts you in a frame of mind to contemplate assaults on peaceable public structures.
That’s not to say it inspires bloodlust or the urge to expansionism, but rather that it is very good at making you think about military methods and motivations.
I had not visited the First Division Museum before its multimillion-dollar renovation, which it will show off when it reopens to the public with a daylong celebration Saturday. And, full disclosure, I have visited very few other military museums. So my grounds for comparison are a little thin.
But this one strikes me as a superbly done exploration of what it means to go to war, to be in war, to serve in a celebrated outfit that could be called on at any minute to keep the peace or end it.
The museum’s prism for telling this story is the First Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, McCormick’s old World War I compadres. The First is alternately nicknamed the “Fightin’ First,” which I can only hear in Stephen Colbert’s voice thanks to an old “Colbert Report” bit, and the Big Red One, after the color of the number on the shoulder patch worn by the division’s members.
Telling the story of the First through its 100 years of existence — the anniversary this year was a goad for the $8.5 million overhaul — amounts basically to telling the story of modern warfare, from trenches to terrorism, from mustard gas to, well, mustard gas.
Visitors see war, and the First, move from the horrific grinding human sacrifice of World War I to peacekeeping and counterinsurgency missions in our more recent conflicts. Along the way they visit the battle for Omaha Beach on D-Day and slog through the red-dirt jungles of Vietnam.
A highlight of the newer section, which covers post-Vietnam to the present and is a new addition, is the virtual reality raid on a suspected terrorist house. You’re seated on a bench located in a helicopter cabin inside a museum gallery on a former country estate in Wheaton wearing high-tech goggles, but you are also in there with U.S. soldiers as they enter a home in a foreign land where the occupants are suspected of, at minimum, colluding with insurgents.
VR exhibits these days are usually worth the time it takes to strap on the glasses, but this one, utilizing footage made by the museum at the training center at the First Division’s Fort Riley, Kan., headquarters, is especially on point. It lets you feel the uncertainty and peril behind every closed door.
But technology still isn’t the main point at the museum, which opened in 1960 and moved into its present building in 1992. The people who fought in these wars, those who did the fightin’ in the First, are. The new exhibition and the makeover of the old one, guided by Luci Creative, of Lincolnwood, strive to emphasize human stories.
“We wanted to show what it was like to be a soldier,” said AJ Goehle, Luci’s director of strategy and design, during a media preview Monday.
Display cases emphasize the things soldiers carried, the personal items that remind us these are our neighbors, our uncles, our mothers. The memorabilia on display, wartime souvenirs such as a French town sign, were often donated by former First Division soldiers.
“We are proud to be the custodians of seven Medals of Honor,” said Paul Herbert, the museum’s executive director. And the stories of those men, short tales of heroism and sacrifice interspersed amid the artifacts and the battle maps, tug hard at the heartstrings.
“We make three big points,” Herbert said. “This is our division, our soldiers, our missions. That’s ‘our’ as in ‘we the people.’ ”
The museum had been averaging about 175,000 visitors a year and hopes the changes might bump that figure up to 200,000, Herbert said.
The museum doesn’t hammer home patriotism. It doesn’t need to. What’s underscored here is deeper than wearing an American flag pin in a lapel, say. It’s something fundamental to the idea of the nation.
“The civil-military contract in which we are not afraid of our soldiers is almost unique in the world and one of the most important things in our democracy,” Herbert said.
Many now-famous men passed through the ranks of the First: the film director Sam Fuller, whose footage from a liberated concentration camp shows in the WWII section; future Sen. Sam Ervin, who guided the Senate’s Watergate Committee; and Theodore Roosevelt Jr., a 1D officer in both world wars.
And, of course, there was McCormick, who named the Wheaton property, which now also houses public golf courses and gardens, after the French town the First had to take from Germans in the inaugural American battle in World War I.
There is new signage throughout, rich with information but contemporary in its feel. The one explaining how a WWI trench was built and used, for instance, gave me the best sense I’ve ever had of those infamous shelters. But the overall metaphor for the museum’s main exhibition, which covers the First from inception through Vietnam, remains almost a walk-through diorama.
The route that follows the division through these conflicts puts you in the settings, whether it’s a shattered building in Cantigny with an early-generation French tank looming overhead, or in a European forest at the Battle of the Bulge, or amid the chaos on Omaha Beach, in Normandy, on D-Day.
“A million things went wrong with the plan to take Omaha Beach,” Herbert said, including men becoming separated from their commanders. “The reason we took the beach is because the soldiers of the First Division took over.
“In the 100-year history of the First Division,” he said, “this is the best moment. And it’s a moment on which the history of the war literally turned.”
As it did at Normandy, the First got some of the military’s toughest missions and, from the story the museum presents, it has developed a reputation for executing them well — “the best troops I had,” in a quote on display from Gen. Omar Bradley.
The museum dedicated to commemorating the First is doing a fine job living up to that tradition of excellence.
Published by Chicago Tribune.