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Memorial Day is a tradition with roots celebrated back to 1865, when General John A. Logan of the Grand Army designated May 5 as a day to decorate fallen soldiers’ graves from the Confederate and Union armies. One of the earliest known ceremonies involved a group of formerly enslaved people near Charleston, South Carolina, paying honor to Union Soldiers buried at a local raceway.
In 1971, the United States Congress designated a national holiday on the last Monday in May as Memorial Day. While parades, speeches, community festivals, car shows and a day off work often mark the day with festivities and celebration. Memorial Day reminds us of all the brave men and women who died fighting for our country’s freedoms.
A great way to honor these patriots and learn more about their work is to visit significant military sites and museums across Arkansas. These designated spots serve as a great learning environment for home-school families, day trips for summer bucket lists and most importantly, a place to gain perspective and honor and remember that our freedoms come with a cost.
The F-105 Thunderchief usually catches someone’s eye as they drive by, but it’s always worth a stop at the Jacksonville Museum of Military History. This hidden gem museum tells the story of Arkansas’s involvement in military conflicts from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. The museum also shares the history of the nearby Little Rock air force base and the Arkansas Army National Guard. Rare military nurse uniforms, a Titan II control panel, and an MG42 Machine gun are among the unique artifacts on display.
Located at Drake Field, the Arkansas Air and Military Museum occupies the Old White Hangar, initially built in 1944 as a home base for a WWII Training Detachment. The contract ended two days after its dedication, and the detachment left Fayetteville forever. Other aviation services moved into the space and quickly became the aviation hub in Arkansas until 1999 when all commuter airlines moved to XNA. In honor of Arkansas’ 150th birthday, the renovated original wooden hangar became home to the first Arkansas Air Museum, which later combined with the Ozark Military Museum, previously the World War Two Museum. Today it functions as one place where visitors can see military aircraft, restoration efforts, emergency vehicles, and war memorabilia.
MacArthur Park contains the capital city’s military museum. The park and subsequent museum are named for General Douglass MacArthur, who was born at the Little Rock Arsenal on this site in 1880. By 1890 the military base was in grave disrepair, and plans were made for a large city park. Over time the Arkansas Arts Center, a historic firehouse, statues, wells, gardens, and fountains were added and renovated. The park’s plans came into play in 1893 with extensive renovations time and time again. Finally, in 2001, the Tower building was renovated and became the Museum of Arkansas Military History. The museum preserves the contributions of Arkansans in wartime efforts from its territorial beginning until the present day.
The Museum of Veterans and Military History is a “must-see” for military history enthusiasts. Many of the volunteers and active researchers for the museum are active or retired military personnel that served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Desert Storm and Iraq. The museum partners with the Vilonia School District for hands-on research and public history display participation by high school students. The museum offers free tours, educational programs and a veteran’s outreach center.
Located on the grounds of Camp Robinson, the Arkansas National Guard Museum preserves the history and artifacts of the Guard and its militia predecessor and Camps Robinson and Pike. They serve the Arkansas people with access to this information for display and research, including the ARNG African American Pioneers and Women’s History projects. In addition, Arkansans can access several digital exhibits anytime.
Arkansas’ only museum dedicated solely to providing a visual history of World War II. The Wings of Honor WWII Museum also preserved the history of the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School, the Marine Corps Air Facility, the War Assets Administration’s Warbird Storage, Sales and Scrapping Facility, and the USAF 725th Radar Squadron.
The Museum of Chaffee History houses the most extensive collection of Fort Chaffee artifacts, including photographs, flags/banners, and memorabilia from the Fort’s role in 5 wars, sheltering Vietnamese refugees, multiple redevelopment projects, and military movies filmed on the Fort’s grounds. Nearby are the Vietnam Veteran’s Museum and a Veteran’s Memorial Plaza. In addition, Fort Chaffee is still a training ground for the Arkansas Army National Guard and the Chaffee Crossing economic development project.
The Pea Ridge National Military Park, Prairie Grove Battlefield, Poison Springs battleground, the Battle of Helena grounds, and the Camden Expedition motorcycle trails represent battles fought on Arkansas soil.
How can you pause today and remember in gratitude those who died fighting and protecting your freedoms?
These military museums would undoubtedly be great additions to your family’s summer bucket list or day trips to keep your children busy before school starts back. So where will you go first?
All pictures used with permission from the Arkansas Departments of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism.
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