Montana's Military Museum
Fort Harrison Complex, Helena, Montana
Built by volunteers to honor brave Montanans who served in war
The Montana Military Museum invites you to take a virtual tour of our facilities, check out our programs and monitor our progress. This effort to tell Montana's rich military history is a joint effort by the Department of Military Affairs, the Montana National Guard Museum Activity, and the Fort William Henry Harrison Museum Foundation.
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Museum Tour History Old Buildings 163rd Infantry Through the Centuries
Two centuries of military experiences in Montana are displayed in a museum complex approaching completion at Fort Harrison near Helena.
Spearheading the effort to develop the Montana Military Museum, now five years in the making and using nine buildings at the century-old fort, are volunteers whose aim is to have all displays in place and ready for public viewing five days-a-week by mid-summer.
Exhibits, including uniforms and equipment worn and used by fighting men for more than a century, are now shown on a limited schedule in the first of the three buildings where formal displays will be established.
It is open to the public 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Thursday without admission charge. Free admission will continue when all displays are opened next summer.
According to Raymond Read, a retired colonel and coordinator of the project, the government's only participation is the authorization of the use of the grounds and of the buildings to house the displays. All expenses are being met from donations from individuals, organizations and businesses.
Except for one paid builder, all labor on the project and much of the material also has been donated. Volunteer labor has been provided by veterans, Army and Air National Guardsmen, and members of other organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Civil Air Patrol.
Even with donations of materials and labor, more than $160,000 in contributions is expected to be spent on building renovations and construction, of exhibits.
The museum's displays, created under the direction of Helena artist Robert Morgan, follow the military in Montana from the arrival of the Lewis and Clark army expedition in 1805, through the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm and various peacekeeping operations. The military tradition dates from 1806 when Meriwether Lewis' fatal clash with Blackfeet Indians was the U.S. Army's first combat in the state.
Read said the military traditions of the Indians, regarded by some historians as the world's finest light cavalrymen, will receive appropriate attention.
The museum complex is housed in buildings constructed between World War I and the early 1930s. Modification of the structures to provide environmental protection for the exhibits meant installation of false ceilings and interior perimeter walls about four feet inside the masonry exterior.
The renovation followed plans created by Mark Radcliffe, a veteran of the First Special Service Force, who returned to Helena and a successful career as a professional engineer following WorldWar II. After training at Fort Harrison in 1942 and 1943, the First Special Service Force compiled a distinguished combat record. From its 1,400 American and Canadian members, 40 chose to make their post-war homes in Helena.
Fewer than 10 of those 40 survive but they have been among the instigators of the museum. Radcliffe and Herb Goodwin, also a veteran of the First Special Service Force, said despite new construction over the past half-century, visitors to the military museum will recognize many of the structures in which the force was trained and housed almost 60 years ago.
Added impetus to the project came from the veterans of Montana's 163rd Infantry Regiment, National Guardsmen who left their homes in September 1940 for a year of military training that was stretched into island hopping across the South Pacific from 1943-1945 to the acclaim of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and other commanders who recognized their valor.
Roy Wahl, who hailed from East Helena, was a member of the 163rd infantry who transferred to the Air Corps. He recalled an incident in which a pilot ferrying troops during a South Pacific invasion asked his load of 163rd soldiers how many were Montanans. Every hand was raised in response.
In addition to those units, the museum will also commemorate the sacrifice and service of Montanans in the Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. All of those services have been invited to contribute exhibits.
Through the centuries
Upon entering the museum, the chronological progression of the displays will take the visitor from 1805 through the 20th century.
Display cases in the perimeter walls will show some of the more than 6,000 artifacts collected by the museum, and in the interior of the exhibit room alcoves willl feature individual services.
During construction, store room shelves and lockers are nearly overflowing with memorabilia of service past, including uniforms from the various branches and time periods that are nearly irreplaceable. Read, himself a Vietnam combat veteran, welcomes donations of authentic and meaningful artifacts. Fort Harrison was first garrisoned by troops in 1892 and remained an active army post until 1913. Its subsequent history included mustering site for Montana troops bound for France in 1917 and as a training site for National Guardsmen between the two world wars and in the post-war. It is probably best known as the home base of the First Special Service Force. Feared by their woes as "The Devil's Brigade, " the exploits of those soldiers were the subject of a History Channel documentary using that title to be filmed at the museum for showing on national television this spring.
Primary centers for the Montana National Guard, U.S. Army Reserve, and U.S. Navy Reserve are located at Fort Harrison, which is also the home of the Veterans Administration hospital where thousands of ill and injured ex-servicemen have been treated in the past eight decades.
Extensive construction recently has expanded the fort's usefulness as a National Guard and Reserve facility. This presence of the modem military emphasizes the importance of the museum. The museum will be the anchor of a chain of military memorial sites throughout the Helena area. Those sites are located in downtown Helena, at the Capitol, in East Helena, and in the Helena Valley, including veterans' burial sites in five cemeteries, Civil War memorials, the U.S.S. Helena anchor, Philippine- American War plaque, the Soldiers and Pioneers Building that also houses the Montana State Historical Society and the State Arsenal building.
Donations are the sole source of financing the museum project.
Donations may be sent to the Fort William Henry Harrison Museum Foundation and Montana Military Museum, P.O. Box 125, Fort Harrison, MT 59636-0125.
A contribution of $25 buys a basic membership with progressively larger fees for higher levels.
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