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thedrifter
04-10-07, 08:12 AM
Local Marine gives a personal tour of new museum
By WENDI WINTERS, For The Capital

The Marines have always been a lean, green fighting machine. Now the corps has a museum that reflects its Semper Fi spirit.

Adjacent to Quantico, the new National Museum of the Marine Corps' glass roof appears to soar skyward, making it visible from several miles away. With a second look, it could almost be the prow of a glass Viking ship plowing through the trees.

It boasts a steel mast rising 210 feet, higher than the U.S. Capitol dome.

"When we built it, we buried special Marine coins under it," said Annapolis resident and USNA graduate, Col. John W. Ripley.

According to Col. Ripley, the USMC's former director of the Marine Corps History and Museums Division, the "green part of the museum" is the real deal.

"Most of the museum is underground, so we're saving a fortune on heating and cooling the building. The glass roof lets in a lot of sunshine. We're open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday but Christmas Day, so we use the daylight to advantage and don't need a lot of electric lighting in Leatherneck Gallery - the main gallery, directly under the glass spire."

He said they originally planned to raise $25 million, but opened the doors on a $60 million complex.

"When we're done, we'll have raised close to $100 million for the whole project. We've been on schedule the whole time," said the colonel.

Col. Ripley escorted several people to visit the museum - located just off I-95's exit 150A at 18900 Jefferson Davis Highway in Triangle, Va. - recently. The colonel, a Vietnam War hero and former college president, had been one of the key planners and visionaries in getting the project started, designed, funded and built. The retired Marine continues to "consult informally" and leads tours at least once a month.

His daughter, Mary Ripley, who joined the Naval Institute in November after a move from the Pacific Northwest, hadn't yet viewed the project. Bill Miller had also recently joined USNI as a publisher and USNI's photo archivist, Janis Jorgensen, hadn't had the chance to make the 60-minute hop to Quantico to see what the Marines were up to.

As the van-load scooted down I-95, Col. Ripley eased into his role of uber-docent.

"The other architects had plans that were good, they looked worthy, but their designs looked like other museums. Curtis Worth Fentress, of Fentress-Bradburn, had a vision that was so powerful, so perfect," he said. "Fentress went and found a historian, Joe Alexander, and asked him what Marines believed in."

From the beginning, the Fentress-Bradburn sketches included a soaring glass and steel roof that evoked the Marines' famous flag raisings on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi as the tide turned into the World War II conflict with Japan.

"The scale of this museum is 20 times greater than our old museum in the Navy Yard in Washington, and it's only one-third built," he said, describing additional plans for an Imax theater - a nearby hotel and conference center, ideal for reunions; a parade ground; artifact restoration facilities; a Marine Corps family building; a woodland trail and a stream-fed memorial park devoted to Marines lost at sea. There may also be more halls built onto the existing structure. "We've already started Phase II. Fundraising is constant," he reported.

The traffic's been almost overwhelming since it opened in early November.

"It almost had to close one day," the colonel said. "The old conventional wisdom was that all the museums, everything, had to be in Washington, near the Mall. But, we are now part of the 'A' Tour consisting of the Smithsonian, the Mall and the Marine Corps Museum. We're closer than the Air & Space Museum in Dulles."

The initial site for the museum was on the western side of Quantico Base.

"Whose idea is this?" the colonel barked when he first saw the plans. "We're gonna change things! I want people to see it from I-95."

A little horse-trading ensued with county and state officials. Quantico had given the land to the county and then had to ask for its return. Realizing the economic value of the swap, the county quickly acceded.

"Now everyone likes the site and it has room to grow," he said.

Two organizations are involved in the museum. Since neither the Marines nor any other government entity can fund raise, the museum was built in partnership with the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit.

Visitors to the museum do not pay an admission fee and parking is free, but security is tight.

In the entryway, Col. Ripley was greeted warmly by several volunteer docents, all retired Marines. An Iraq war veteran, active-duty Sgt. Jeremiah Workman of Marion, Ohio, also welcomed him.

The central gallery is the Leatherneck Gallery, an airy circular room sheathed in ivory Italian quarried travertine marble.

"These are the icons of the Marine Corps. They're here to remind the public of the things that are exclusive to Marines," he said.

The colonel seemingly possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of every soldier, vehicle, weapon, medal, and chunk of gravel in the place.

"Suspended several stories above, captured in mid-flight, are two World War II-type Corsairs, used exclusively by Marines," he said.

Swarming over the planes, in the cockpits or in realistic scenes on the ground, were life-sized action figures with faces and other features cast on young Marine volunteers from Quantico. The figures' realism is minute. One wounded soldier grimaces in pain: his hand-set glass eyes are bloodshot, his skin is sweaty, realistic teeth are visible and the blood looks fresh and wet.

Pointing to one figure rappelling down from the ceiling with two other comrades in camo gear, Col. Ripley laughed.

"That guy was a docent here in his spare time before he was transferred. He'd stand there and wait for people to do a double-take. The machine-gunners shown here are machine-gunners in real life."

Ms. Jorgensen said the museum is much larger inside than she had originally thought.

Ms. Ripley agreed. "I had seen the plans," she exclaimed. "It's so much more impressive seeing it in person with my dad. It's been such a labor of love for him. To have him explain everything, including his role in selecting the quotes, the attention to detail. It's all incredible.

"Thanks, dad!"

To ensure the architects and exhibit designers understood Marine life, they were packed off to boot camp in San Diego. They rode a bus in with nervous recruits and received the same bracing, skin-blistering welcome all recruits receive while standing on yellow footprints.

Museum visitors can "enjoy" the same experience in the Boot Camp gallery. There's two sound booths where you can listen to a drill instructor making the recruits feel comfortable. The female drill instructor sounds like Cruella De Ville on steroids.

Looking at a M1918 Mark I trench knife, complete with barbed brass knuckles and a "skull cracker" spike tucked safely behind glass, he grinned: "Jolly good weapon!" Later, he expounded on types of Japanese "teacup" grenades found at Iwo Jima. Made of ceramic, they were also given to Japanese civilians.

Staring at a flame throwing harness, he said, "On Iwo Jima, the life expectancy of a flame thrower was a minute and a half."

A "Fast Track" timeline wall arcs counterclockwise on one long curving wall. Interwoven with Marine exploits are other historical moments, such as the rise of the Civil Rights movement or the first Disney cartoon, helping to establish the Marines within the context of the time. Dotted here and there are actual Medals of Honor and other medals, donated by the honorees' families, or other small objects that, combined, provide a compelling historical picture.

During a short introductory film, the colonel stage whispers: "I know every single Marine in this movie."

For more information, go to www.usmcmuseum.org or call 877-635-1775.


Ellie