If you’ve ever driven down I-5 you may have noticed a pristine white building surrounded by military vehicles, a helicopter, gold cannons and the American flag hoisted on its staff, flying high. For the past 10+ years, we’ve passed this place, wondering how we’d be able to get into the Lewis Army Museum. Well, this past weekend we stopped by and were thrilled to find out that the museum is open to the public. If you have kids who are interested in military vehicles and war history, then this museum is a must-see.
Getting there and into the museum
It’s no secret that part of the I-5 corridor is dedicated to Joint Base Lewis-McChord with many base camps, vehicle encampments and training facilities. Our impromptu visit led us in various (read wrong) directions diminishing our faith in good ol’ Google Maps. In other words, don’t follow your GPS, instead follow these directions on the Lewis Army Museum’s website. It’ll take you right to the civilian parking lot.
Leave your car and head to the turn-style and gated fence. If you think you can just walk to the museum by yourself, think again. Directions on the placard, near the parking lot exit, will guide you to a phone number. Call the number and have an officer meet you at the gate.
The officer who met us was very official in his military garb. He greeted us politely, unlocked the gate, and escorted us across the street to the museum grounds. Along the way, he mapped out the areas where we could stay and places where we shouldn’t go. Keeping that in mind, we moved ahead to the museum where we were asked to sign into their registry.
Lewis Army Museum history
Dating back to WWI and originally built by the Salvation Army to house family and friends of those serving at Camp Lewis, the building served as a hotel named the Red Shield Inn. After some time the Inn was used as excess military housing. In the 1970s the building was deemed unsafe and sold to the United States government for $1. The building was then turned into the Lewis Army Museum and entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Inside the Lewis Army Museum: First floor
To cool off from the hot sun we headed into the museum and met the museum’s docent. He talked a little about the two floors that we would be seeing. The Lewis Army Museum is a self-guided tour with arrows guiding you from room to room. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. Inside you’ll find placards explaining the history of the base, artifacts of war: rifles, bayonets, soldier’s armor and garments, and of course stories of war through the years. There were replicas of the beds in the barracks and what soldiers were first given as rations when first joining the base.
A photograph of Mount St. Helens, pre-volcanic eruption, surrounded by planes is a memorable image along with many types of weapons used by American soldiers as well as soldiers from different countries.
Lewis Army Museum: Second floor
Head to the second floor to view exhibits about WWII, the Iraq War, Desert Storm, and various other military operations. There are some interactive exhibits and maps where kids can watch videos and press buttons to identify military positions in a particular strategic war operation.
The focus of this floor was on tactical warfare and the importance of warfare strategy, while other sections offered exhibits that served as a memorial for the numerous soldiers who had lost their lives in various wars.
The grounds of the Lewis Army Museum: An amazing display of vehicles
The inside of the museum was informational and interesting to see, however, the exhibit of vehicles outside was amazing. Both my sons were beyond excited to walk around various tanks, missiles and army vehicles measuring their height against each one, peering into the windows, and reaching up to touch the inside of barrels. Note: Be careful touching the vehicles as many are rusty, have broken glass and/or have bee nests tucked away within the wheels and tracks.
Start in front of the museum building examining the cannons and tank, then head to the row of tanks to the right. Make your way to the backyard where you’ll find even more tanks and other vehicles like the Sherman, self-propelled Arty, Skysweeper, and more. Under cover are more utility vehicles for transportation like Army ambulances, weapons carriers and others.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much information about the vehicles as you pass by and examine each one, but you can view this online guide which will tell you the name of the vehicle and some history.
Swing around to the other side of the building and you’ll find the Iroquois helicopter. You aren’t allowed to enter any of the vehicles but the doors of the helicopter were open so you can take a peek inside. The flight journal is also available to view as well as a plaque honoring soldiers who passed.
End of your tour
Once you’ve got your fill of the museum, it’s time to go. Head back into the museum to meet the officer who escorted you in and have him/her take you back to the civilian lot. We saw that people were parking near the museum and asked about this lot. Apparently, the lot is for retired or current soldiers and their families who have passes to visit the base and the museum.
We headed back to the car and my youngest son said, “That was my happy place and it was so cool!” Clearly a successful trip, one we’ll do again, without a doubt.
Before you go:
- Follow these directions to get to the Lewis Army Museum
- Call this number when you reach the civilian parking lot: 253-967-7206
- The museum is open Wednesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
- The museum is free of cost but donations are accepted
- There is a gift shop onsite with military memorabilia. My kids chose to get some pretty cool pencil sharpeners shaped like planes and tanks.
- Bathrooms are located on the first floor of the museum
- The museum and grounds are stroller-friendly
- Although we were able to touch the vehicles outside, they were very rusty and had lots of broken glass, cracked windows, and damage. Be careful when around these exhibits.
- Many of the vehicles have bee nests nestled into the tank’s chains or vehicle wheels. Be careful walking around them
- As tempting as it is to sit in the vehicles, keep out and stay safe