Westpoint is America’s oldest military academy, and one of its best colleges. Dwight Eisenhower went there. So did General Patton, Buzz Aldrin, and the infamous Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. (Full list available here.) The education is free, but to get in you need to pass a physical, have great academics, and (crucially) receive a nomination from a U.S. Congressman, Senator, or the Vice President.
The museum is also free, and you don’t need a note from anyone.
Westpoint is more than an hour from New York City, but it’s worth the drive. The campus is gorgeous, a collection of colonial and neo-gothic buildings hugging the Hudson river. A castle-like building (Olmstead Hall) houses the museum. Inside, galleries cover America’s military history, as well as tactics and weapons from the dawn of warfare. An entire hall is devoted to the development of firearms. Presented chronologically, they bring to mind a Natural History museum display of Darwin’s finches.
The historical artifacts are mind-blowing. Napoleon’s sword, presented to Eisenhower by Charles DeGaulle after the liberation of France. A solid gold pistol, hidden amongst Hitler’s personal effects in Berlin. An original copy of Japan’s unconditional surrender at the end of WWII.
What I found most interesting were the early versions of equipment still used today. Camouflage, now generated by computer algorithms, was originally hand-painted onto uniforms and helmets. One of the painted jackets looked like something a trendy Parisian would wear, except for the swastikas.
Maybe the strangest thing I saw was a “splatter mask,” worn by operators of early tanks. Those machines had a tiny vision slot with a thick glass window, but the glass had to be removed during battle if it got muddy or dirty. Without the glass, drivers could get blinded by shrapnel from bullets shattering on the tank. Slotted metal plates covered the eyes, while an incongruous chainmail veil protected the lower face. A 13th century solution for a 20th century problem.
Most surprising for me was a mess kit from a POW, which he had intricately carved and decorated during his confinement. What really caught my attention is that WE HAVE THE SAME NAME. Except for the middle initial, but it still counts.