Whether you’re listening to a former Vietnam War nurse tell her stories or hearing the familiar voice of Tom Hanks playing the role of Luverne’s newspaper editor in Ken Burns’ documentary, “The War,” Minnesota’s museums tells thousands of wartime tales. From life on the battlefront to the homefront, exhibits and audio interviews share chapters of courage and perseverance, horrific tragedies and sacrifice, and unexpected heroism.
Minnesota Military Museum, Camp Ripley
This museum reaches back to Minnesota’s earliest days of armed forces. The site began as Fort Ripley, a U.S. Army outpost along the Mississippi River north of Little Falls from 1849 to 1877. Originally set up to protect settlers as they flowed west, the fort’s role later evolved to a 53,000-acre military training center used primarily for the Minnesota National Guard since 1931.
As the state’s largest repository of military history, it includes artifacts from the Civil War when Minnesota soldiers fought at the Battle of Gettysburg and replica of a European trench for “In the Fight: Minnesota and the First World War I,” an extensive exhibit that opened in 2016. Other displays include weapons from the Revolutionary War to modern machine guns, medals and heroic stories, and outdoor seasonal displays of tanks, military vehicles and six military jeeps that Minnesota helped develop.
Herreid Military Museum, Luverne
Visitors can settle into leather sofas and watch the Ken Burns’ documentary, “The War,” that had its world premiere in this southwestern Minnesota small town in 2009. Considered one of America’s most beloved history teachers, Burns tells the story of World War II through the lens of Luverne and three other small towns that sent off young men such as fighter pilot Quentin Aanenson who became heroes, struggled with life on the homefront and lost sons and husbands as fighting continued across the globe.
The handsome multi-story quartzite museum expands Luverne’s stories through exhibits on World War II, including a display dedicated to Lenore Sandager, the county’s first woman to enter the military. She served in the communication schools that included famed Navajo code-talking classes. Artifacts—uniforms, weapons, art, photos, flags and souvenirs--that span the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, Vietnam, Korean Wars and Gulf wars.
In Their Own Words, Perham
Celebrating its 10th year in 2016, this aptly named northwestern Minnesota museum provides a fresh, interactive and poignant perspective of soldiers’ experiences. Visitors can select whose stories they’d like to hear, watch videos and listen to stories through a variety of listening stations.
From gravelly-voiced World War II soldiers to women who served in Vietnam, they share their tales, from everyday conditions and camaraderie to losing comrades and the regrets and grief that linger long past war’s end.
Minnesota History Center, St. Paul
Visitors can experience the intensity of a D-Day battle in a war plane, pack ammunition in a replicated ordnance plant and see a M-8 armored vehicle built at the St. Paul Ford plant in the Minnesota History Center exhibit, “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation: The Depression, The War, The Boom.” It includes audio stories from men and women who experienced combat, the impact of the Pearl Harbor attack, and stories of the Japanese-Americans who trained at a Fort Snelling language school to work in wartime military intelligence.
The exhibit “World War I America” will run from April to September 2017, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the United States joining World War I.
Fort Snelling, St. Paul
On a bluff above the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, this site has been a strategic and even sacred location for native tribes. Early explorers built a trading post and military fort in the early 1800s. Soldiers trained here before heading to the Civil War, Indian wars, the Spanish American War and both world wars, with more than 300,000 inductees processed just during World War II.
The historic fort with costumed interpreters from the 1860s and daily booms from a black-powder cannon. The historic fort is closed during winter,, but there is a year-round visitor center nearby with permanent war exhibits, including stories of Japanese-Americans who taught Japanese during World War II. Fort Snelling State Park also has a visitor center that includes displays on the Dakota people who were brought here after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.