Heroes on Board

03 Jul 2024

Newly-renovated Medal of Honor Museum reopens on USS Yorktown

By Jenny Peterson

Photos by Tumbleston Photography

It was the bamboo embellishments that caused Medal of Honor recipient Brian Thacker to take pause at the Vietnam War display at the renovated and reimagined Medal of Honor Museum aboard the USS Yorktown at Patriot’s Point.

U.S. Army First Lieutenant Thacker—who was nominated for the Medal of Honor in 1971 and received it in 1973 for supreme courage above and beyond the call of duty during the Vietnam War—stood solemnly in front of the tribute that tells the stories of those who received the nation’s highest award for military heroism.

Thacker was one of nine distinguished service members on board the USS Yorktown to celebrate the opening of the renovated $3.5 million Medal of Honor Museum at Patriot’s Point. The renovated $3.5 million, 25,000 square-foot climate-controlled museum officially opened to the public on May 25, kicking off Memorial Day weekend.

Medal of Honor Recipients—clad in tartan blazers and heroic medals affixed with blue ribbons around their necks—officially cut the ribbon for the museum, which tells the stories of the Recipients to inform guests about bravery and courage and U.S. conflicts. The Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,517 people from all branches of the armed forces, with 19 recipients receiving the medal twice. There are 61 living recipients.

According to The Congressional Medal of Honor Society, a non-profit based in Mt. Pleasant, Thacker received the honor for his courage in calling for friendly artillery fire on his own position during an “untenable situation” during the Vietnam War in order to allow his comrades time to withdraw safely from the area.

“Although wounded and unable to escape from the area himself, he successfully eluded the enemy forces for eight days until friendly forces regained control of the fire base,” the society states.

For Thacker, the bamboo in the Vietnam War display brought back raw memories—a testament to the authenticity of the exhibits that underwent a drastic renovation designed by renowned museum design team M. Catton & Co. of Iowa.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society spearheaded the renovation and debuted the new museum after eight months of construction. The renovation was made possible through a grant from the National Medal of Honor Center for Leadership, which raised funds through corporate sponsors such as the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and the Town of Mt. Pleasant. The museum is included in the price of admission to Patriot’s Point.

In 1999, The United States Congress designated Patriot’s Point as the home of the Medal of Honor Museum. The first museum was created in 1999 and renovated in 2004 but consisted of humble displays and minimal signage.

This recent renovation and reimagination—years in the making—includes state-of-the-art immersive exhibits and never-before-seen artifacts from personal collections that tell the stories of Medal of Honor Recipients divided into six wars: the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War and the Global War on Terror.

Guests walk through a tunnel-like hallway surrounded by video screens that simulate the explosions and chaos servicemembers experience on the ground in the War on Terror and enter a museum displaying actual Medals of Honor, simulations with night vision, boot camp training equipment and the ability to lift a fully-packed 50-pound rucksack. There are QR codes on each exhibit for more information on the recipients and their acts of heroism, biographies and first-person videos of the recipients.

Never-before-seen artifacts from personal and collections include wartime gear such as the New Testament and psalms and the gospel of St. John that Medal of Honor Recipient Robert Maxwell carried in World War II.

Laura Jowdy, senior director of archives and collections for the Medal of Honor Museum, said the Congressional Medal of Honor Society began collecting artifacts since the late 1980s, donated from Recipients and their family and friends. This is the first time many of the artifacts are on display to the public and the staff continue to collect new pieces.

Jowdy said $3 million of the grant went into the museum renovation and the rest will go to the museum’s upkeep and operations, including two archivists who will make sure items are properly preserved and displayed.

The museum intentionally connects the Medal of Honor to its location at Patriot’s Point, which Jowdy says has 19 attractions on-site that are tied directly to medal Recipients.

For example, a video screen inside the museum about the Doolittle Raid and aviation Medal of Honor Recipients fades into a glass wall with viewers coming face-to-face with the warplane on the USS Yorktown, fully incorporating the plane into the context of the Medal of Honor.

Through kiosks and technology, visitors can learn about each Recipient—including Dr. Mary Walker, the only female to earn the honor—and see a military training schedule, historical helmets, weapons and more. There’s also an exhibit about the history of the medal and the creation of its unique design.

Britt Slabinski, a Medal of Honor Recipient and president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, spoke about the importance of how the museum personalizes each Recipient.

Both The National Medal of Honor Center for Leadership and The Congressional Medal of Honor Society will use the Medal of Honor Museum as an opportunity to teach the next generation about values that embody the medal: courage, sacrifice, integrity, commitment, patriotism and citizenship. The National Medal of Honor Center for Leadership plans to expand and build a $75 million conference center and values-based immersive experience adjacent to the Yorktown to further its mission.

Slabinski stressed the importance of how the museum personalizes each Recipient.

“Each exhibit, each artifact, each display represents a story of an individual who, in the face of overwhelming adversity, chose to act with unparalleled courage and conviction,” he said. “These stories remind us of the immense power of the human spirit and the potential within each of us to make a difference at their core.”

The Medal of Honor Museum is located on board the U.S.S. Yorktown. The museum is included with admission to Patriot’s Point Naval & Maritime Museum. Visit www.cmohs.org/museum for more information and ways to support the museum.

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