The National Museum of Military Vehicles is on the way to Yellowstone. And it shows off the biggest private collection of military vehicles in the country.
I am tiptoeing under a dark canopy of banana plants and palm trees, the sheer darkness only illuminated by dots of moonlight sneaking between the leaves. To my right, a trip line is hiding between some low-lying shrubs. Just ahead, a dug-out trench shows evidence of an enemy soldier, who had been waiting to ambush me just a few minutes before. The air is silent save for croaking frogs and whistling insects, but the knowledge that an explosion could rock me at any minute fills it with a terrifying tension.
I am, of course, not on a night patrol in the jungles of Vietnam, since I’m a generation removed from the possibility of that particular life experience. I’m just outside the mountain town of Dubois, Wyoming, home to the National Museum of Military Vehicles, and its creepily immersive mock-up of the Vietnam War. While the museum’s incredible collection of firearms, tanks, trucks, and other tactical vehicles is a thing to behold, its main purpose is to tell the stories of the people who’ve fought in our wars, and give visitors a sense of their experience.
Dubois, Wyoming Was Supposed To Mean Retirement
The National Museum of Military Vehicles sits tucked in the canyons and valleys of Wyoming’s Wind River region, the stunning, snow-capped stretch of mountains and tribal land stretching from the state’s center to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.
Museum founder and owner Dan Starks moved out here with his wife after a three-decade career as a health care CEO to, as he put it “get away from it all and turn into hermits.” But like many retirees, with no work, Starks needed something to do. So he did what any red-blooded American man with money in the bank and a lot of time on his hands would: He bought a tank. A World War 2 Sherman tank, to be exact, which he purchased in hopes of restoring it to ride in the town’s July 4th parade.
One tank led to two tanks, which then led to trucks, Howitzers, helicopters, and pretty much anything else on wheels the American military used in the 20th century. “I turned OCD searching key terms on the Internet looking for American military vehicles that were for sale,” he says. “Then I became aware of an auction, where this guy…who had the largest private collection in the United States had died. And his whole estate was auctioned off.”
He further amassed his collection, scoping museums’ liquidation auctions and fielding calls from private collectors who got wind of his search. Eventually, his collection became an attraction in and of itself. “I’d be hosting three groups of people a day, with people calling me and saying, ‘Hey can I come see your stuff?’” he says. “And I always wanna say yes if possible. But eventually I was like, this needs to be more systematic.”
The National Museum of Military Vehicles, Born From Passion
And so the idea for the National Museum of Military Vehicles was born. One hundred million dollars and several years later, the public can come through and spend hours perusing the country’s largest private collection of military vehicles—over 450 of them spread across 140,000 square feet.
The museum is like a History Channel documentary come to life, packed with exquisite detail about last century’s three most recent major American conflicts—World War 2, Korea, and Vietnam. Each gallery is packed with vehicles, yes, but more so is ripe with stories and timelines that chronicle how we got into the wars, breakdowns of key battles, and explanations of why we got out.
How The National Museum of Military Vehicles Works
The experience begins in the Unknown Soldiers Weapons Vault, whose main attraction is the rifle used to fire the first shots at the Battle of Bunker Hill. It’s an important piece of history that then leads into halls of everything from muskets to M16s, with .50 cals, SAWs, TOW missiles, and other stuff that’ll give any veteran a rush of firing range nostalgia.
The museum then moves into the Marshall Gallery, which tells the story of America’s role in World War 2. It doesn’t begin with tales of military conquest, though, but rather a tribute to what Starks says is the unsung hero of World War 2: Manufacturing. “Manufacturing isn’t the sexy part, and we don’t say enough about it, but we won by out manufacturing everyone else,” he says. “So we want to convey the connection between manufacturing and freedom in modern warfare.”
From there, guests walk into the museum’s rotunda, where Starks’ original tank is on display alongside dozens of other tanks, artillery guns, and other World War 2 war machines. You’ll see transports from Normandy and even some Japanese vehicles. Each one, Starks says, can run if it’s started up,
Next, guests walk through the gallery devoted to Korea and Vietnam, named after uber-Marine Lewis “Chesty” Puller. Through a series of immersive battle scenes from the Chosin Reservoir and Battle of Inchon, we learn how the U.S. was nearly pushed back into the ocean. Then why the war dragged on so long and why it stopped with the armistice splitting Korea in two.
Then it’s on to Vietnam, an even more-immersive trip through scenes of urban warfare, jungle patrols, soldier hutches, and Naval river boats which bring to mind Apocalypse Now. It’s the crescendo of the museum’s story, and the effect is completely intentional.
Created to Build Interest, Honor Veterans
“When you get to the end of the (WW2) gallery, people are expecting to see that for Korea and Vietnam,” Starks explains. “But if we just do that again, we’re gonna lose people. We gotta raise the bar. We need to beat expectations, so we went heavier on the sets in Korea, then the capstone is Vietnam. I spent more per square foot to create that immersion.”
The reason, Starks says, isn’t just to keep guests’ interest. It’s also to give Vietnam vets a place to tell their story and bring family members who may not understand what their experience was like. “We’ve got people who went through this who are still under-appreciated and under-recognized,” says Starks. “We want Vietnam veterans to visit with their families and see themselves honored in a way they’re not anywhere else. And we wanna have as many props and positive triggers so they can say, ‘Yeah, I did this.’ And tell those stories before they’re lost forever.”
As far as roadside attractions go, they don’t get much more educational and awesome—in the biblical sense—than the National Museum of Military Vehicles. If you’re a firearms or military aficionado, you can get lost inside for days. But even if you’re not, the museum will give you a better sense of what some of your older relatives experienced when they went to war. And maybe help you understand America’s history a little more deeply.