War may not be the answer but it’s part of our history, and on full display at the American Heritage Museum. Tucked away on the Collings Foundation property in Hudson, about 45 minutes from Boston, the museum has an impressive collection, with more than 85 military vehicles and equipment featured in its 67,000-square-foot space. There are 20 tanks and artifacts that are the only ones on public display in North America, including the museum’s newest acquisition, the world’s last fully restored and flying fighter plane that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
There are also Disney-like theater productions, with lights, sounds, and archival photos and footage, emotionally moving personal accounts, and well-thought-out and stylized displays. We’re not big wartime history buffs; the sight of tanks and weapons of war actually brings qualms, and yet we were captivated during our recent (and first) visit to the museum.
The concept of the American Heritage Museum began in 2013 when the nonprofit Collings Foundation received the massive private collection of tanks, armored vehicles, and military artifacts from the Jacques M. Littlefield family. Over his lifetime, Jacques Littlefield amassed the world’s largest privately held collection of tanks and military vehicles.
The museum is organized in chronological order beginning with the Revolutionary War to present times, highlighting the advances in weaponry and warfare through the years. Visitors begin by entering the first of three theaters, highlighting the Revolutionary and Civil wars, moving on to a second theater, set up as a trench during World War I. It’s an immersive presentation of the battle-torn landscape of Saint-Mihiel, France, with lights and voices, and archival footage. On display is a Ford Model T Ambulance, a German 1917 machine gun, and a M1917 6-ton tank. The third theater features a film on the rise of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany and includes a replica of the Mercedes G4, favored by Adolf Hitler, and other artifacts. The presentation ends with a film on the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the screen lifts, and you walk into a second-floor mezzanine overlooking the massive World War II display.
“We couldn’t have people climbing on the vehicles, but this allows you to look into them from above; it’s a different perspective,” says executive director Rob Collings. “When we designed the museum, it was important to make it as immersive as possible.”
The main WWII display follows the war from the North African Campaign, with a rare Matilda Mk.II tank, through the Italian Campaign, to the Eastern Front. Of the estimated 70 million to 85 million deaths attributed to World War II, around 40 million occurred on the Eastern Front, as the two principal powers, Germany and Russia, battled, suffering immense loss of life. The “Clash of Steel” video, shown every half hour on a large screen in the middle of the exhibit hall, features a battle between two of the most advanced tanks along the Eastern Front: the Russian T-34/85 and the Panther Ausf. A. On display below the screen is a fully restored model of each tank. The tanks light up, bombs ignite, fire erupts as part of the video production. Of note: the Russian T-34 is the only one in the world that is completely restored and on public display. Another video provides an overview of the museum collection.
We moved through the hall to the D-Day exhibit memorializing one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history. Displays include a Higgins boat and a flame-throwing Churchill Crocodile tank. Then we strolled through the Battle of the Bulge exhibit, which includes a rare Jumbo Sherman Tank, and the Crossing of the Rhine exhibit, considered the last major German offensive of World War II, and where American forces incurred their highest casualties. The Battle of Berlin, the Defense of the Reich, and the Liberation of Europe exhibits include more war artifacts and displays.
The left side of the exhibit hall begins with the World War II Pacific War, where you’ll find the Curtiss P-40B Warhawk, the last fighter plane to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, and ends with 9/11 and the War on Terror. There are displays on the Korean War, the Cold War (including a section of the Berlin Wall), the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War, with a rare SCUD missile and launcher.
The museum concludes with two original feature films. One highlights an interview with Lieutenant Heather “Lucky” Penney and Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville, F-16 US Air National Guard pilots, talking about their experience on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Penney and Sasseville took off from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to intercept United Airlines Flight 93 headed toward a target in Washington, D.C. They had no live weapons on board, but they were ready to conduct a Kamikaze-like mission. Penney described her thoughts at the time. “Our nation was under attack; we need to defend our nation’s capital, and that’s what we’re sworn to do,” Penney says. “It wasn’t until he [Sasseville] said ‘I’ll take out the cockpit,’ it became very clear that if we were successful, we would not be coming back.” Flight 93 crashed into a field in Somerset, Pa., before Penney and Sasseville could intercept it.
The second video tells the story of a crew on a M1A1 Abrams tank mission in Iraq, resulting in the death of one of its crew members. The museum brought the soldier’s widow and crew members to the museum, where they saw the tank on display. The video shows the reunion and tells what happened on that fateful day with personal accounts from the soldiers.
Geez, by then, we agreed with Marvin Gaye: brother, brother, sister, sister, mother, mother, father, father, war is not the answer. Can we find another way?
While driving out of the parking lot, we noticed a tank circling the field in the back of the museum. A real tank on the move! It’s part of the museum’s immersive program that allows you to drive a tank from World War II, either the M24 Chaffee light tank ($995) or the M4A3 Sherman medium tank ($1,495).
American Heritage Museum, 568 Main St., Hudson. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.. Tickets: adults, $20; ages 3-12, $10; seniors 62 and older and active military, $18; under 2, free. 978-562-9182, www.americanheritagemuseum.org
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com