West Point emblem.

West Point Museum: War Booty

Field review by the editors.

Highland Falls, New York

For a nation not yet 250 years old, America sure has been in a lot of wars.

West Point Museum.

That's an impression you take away from a visit to the West Point Museum, the self-described oldest and largest military museum in the U.S.

Over 60,000 artifacts chronicle how Americans have matched bloody arms with the British, Germans, and Japanese, the Spanish, Italians, and Filipinos, communists and terrorists and Indians -- and each other, as the museum makes clear with its large Civil War collection.

The West Point Museum began as the Ordnance Museum at West Point, a private collection of weapons brought to America's top military academy as training aids for its cadets. But improved transportation brought New York City tourists into the area, and their persistent curiosity persuaded the academy to open the museum to the public.

Miniature Battle of Crecy (1346): Resurgence of infantry.
Miniature Battle of Crecy (1346): Resurgence of infantry.

Although its castle-like building looks medieval, the Museum has only been here since 1988, when it moved just outside the West Point grounds (no ID required to visit).

Trophies of War

The Trophies of War showcase features items such as Hermann Goering's Nazi dagger (he was wearing it when he was captured) and his solid silver guest book, signed by 1930s A-listers such as Hitler, Mussolini, Charles Lindbergh, and U.S. President Herbert Hoover. By far the greatest prize is Hitler's gold plated, pearl-handled pistol, still in its original box.

Nazi booty includes Hitler's gold pistol and Goering's baton.
Nazi booty includes Hitler's gold pistol and Goering's baton.

An accompanying sign notes that, "Few personal war souvenirs are of such great significance."

Atomic Warfare

The U.S. Army's love of technology is evident in the museum's many mementoes of atomic warfare. The "Nuclear Deterrent" showcase displays models of an early 1950s Atomic Cannon and quirky B-36 nuclear bomber. You can see the actual safety plug that was pulled from the bomb "Fat Boy" just before it was dropped on Nagasaki (It's the bomb's only surviving part).

Fat Boy backup and Davy Crockett nuclear mortar.
Fat Boy backup and Davy Crockett nuclear mortar.

Down in the museum's sub-basement is a never-used Fat Boy backup casing and an equally rare "Davy Crockett," the Army's ill-conceived nuclear mortar. The atomic testing display showcases a normal apple "petrified" into a rocklike mass by a-bomb radiation and an old-style beer can crushed by a nuclear blast wave.

American Wars

Roman Legionnaire with bear helmet.
Roman Legionnaire with bear helmet.

The American Wars gallery displays Geronimo's rifle, a plaster mask of Sitting Bull's face, and the last message sent by Custer (West Point class of 1861) at the Battle of Little Big Horn. "Come on. Be quick," is scrawled in pencil on a piece of paper, an order that his underlings wisely disobeyed.

A diorama titled, "Confederate Withdrawal at Gettysburg," generously identifies the rebels as "gallant Virginians" and "in retreat but not in rout" (Many of the Confederacy's treasonous officers, including Gen. Robert E. Lee, were former cadets at West Point).

History of Warfare

The History of Warfare gallery has miltaria dating to Roman times, including a Legionnaire dummy whose helmet has been accessorized with a bear's head. You can see Napoleon's sword, George Washington's pistols, and a communist Korean land mine made of wood. A display of World War I trench clubs -- we were unaware such weapons even existed -- praises the lethal factory-built German models, but dismisses as "too lightweight and ineffective" the American clubs, which were all homemade.

The West Point gallery is a dummy fashion showcase of gaudy outfits worn by cadets over many generations. There are several massive links from the 65-ton "Great Chain" that was stretched across the Hudson River during the Revolution, a silver polo team trophy from 1920 (West Point had a polo team until 1946), and the jacket worn by Frank Borman (West Point class of 1950) when he orbited the moon in 1968.

Some crazy Civil War weapon of mayhem.
Some crazy Civil War weapon of mayhem.

The West Point Museum has done an exemplary job with its civilian outreach, striving to broaden its appeal from professional soldiers to the general public. And even if you develop battle fatigue from looking at hardware such as General Yamashita's sword (he was hanged as a war criminal) or the Nazi robot suicide tank, you can always slip out of the building to admire the statue of Hannibal the Mule.

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West Point Museum: War Booty

Address:
2110 New South Post Rd, Highland Falls, NY
Directions:
US Hwy 9W to Hwy 218, then turn north onto West Point Hwy. Just outside the military academy's front gate, right behind the West Point Visitors Center.
Hours:
Daily 10:30-4:15 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
845-938-3590
Admission:
Free
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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Hannibal the West Point MuleHannibal the West Point Mule, Highland Falls, NY - < 1 mi.
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In the region:
Atomic Buddhist Statue, New York, NY - 39 mi.

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August 8, 2020

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