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Reliving One Chapter of American Military History: The Airborne and Special Operations Museum

The Airborne and Special Operations Museum near Fayetteville, NC displays the importance of airborne infiltration in warfare and the significance of military special operations units in our military operations.

A massive American flag whipped in the wind as my husband and I walked toward the entrance of the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Stepping inside, we were surrounded by exhibits filling the 5,000 square-foot, five-story high foyer. Two fully deployed parachutes, one from WWII representing the origins of the airborne forces. The other a modern MC-4 square chute representing modern special operations and the unconventional warfare these men and women continue to engage in.

Displayed together, the parachutes represent the development of airborne infiltration, its relatively short history, and the soldiers who work in support of one another in the combined airborne and special operations community.

One wall in the lobby is dedicated to the 73 individuals who have received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions while assigned to an airborne or special operations unit. Another wall exhibit helps explain the history of airborne and special operations units.

But the real journey into this chapter of American military history begins when you enter the main exhibit gallery. Here you’ll find yourself in 1940 at the beginning of the U.S. Army Parachute Test Platoon. The idea of airborne units was totally new.  

The first American paratrooper was Lieutenant Bill Ryder, leader of the Test Platoon. On August 16, 1940, he became the first American fighting man to stand in the door and jump. He was followed by Private William King, the first U.S. enlisted paratrooper.

With World War II being fought on many fronts, full-scale airborne operations were developed over the next four years. Walking through the gallery, uniforms, medals, personal and regimental stories play out as we journeyed through this time tunnel.
World War II saw the most concentrated use of airborne operations, with five Army divisions dedicated to using this new method of putting men and equipment on the battlefield. The Airborne Divisions were then joined by early special operations soldiers.

Walking through the façade of a French village — representing the Normandy Invasion of June 1944 — we were surrounded by images of war including the C-47 "Skytrain" suspended overhead with a jumper in the door. Audio effects intensify these and many of the exhibits at the museum.

A gallery representing the Pacific-Asiatic Theater of operation was intensified by original newsreel footage playing as we passed exhibit after exhibit that chillingly showed just how powerful the enemy was and how much was sacrificed to win this war.

The Cold War followed WW II and then, in the 1950s, the American airborne and special operations units were again engaged in combat during the Korean War. During this time, the power of unconventional warfare became increasingly clear. Because of their proven importance to the nation’s defense, the 10th Special Forces group at Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville was established in 1952 — the first of the Army’s Special Forces units.

The next corridor is lined with life-size dioramas portraying campaigns during the war in Vietnam. One portrait of war shows a UH-1 "Huey" helicopter, the pilot at the controls, the door gunner at the ready, and two paratroopers on the ground ready for action. Hidden in the bush, the point man for a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, silently surveys the action. In the distance the North Vietnamese Army charges up the hill toward the defense.

The last diorama depicts a Special Forces hide-site during the Persian Gulf War. The front of the site is nearly invisible against the backdrop of desert. The rear of the site has been cut away to show the soldiers watching the movements of an Iraqi convoy. These "silent professionals" will then relay what they see through secure radio methods, providing a "real-time" view of enemy movement.

Upon exiting the gallery, I had an entirely new understanding and appreciation for this elite group of men and women, and how they have served — and are still serving —  their country for nearly seven decades.  

If you go:

After touring the main gallery, you can take in a movie. The large-screen theater offers guests the opportunity to be in the center of the action, encountering military operations in a way never before experienced by the public.

Similar to the movie, the Pitch, Roll, and Yaw Vista-Dome Motion Simulator adds another dimension by physically moving specially designed seating in concert with the film. Suddenly a larger than life film of airborne and special operations becomes almost real. The 24-seat simulator provides visitors with an extreme taste of what the Army’s finest are trained to do. The museum is closed on Mondays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Years Day and Easter. It is, however, open on all Federal holiday Mondays.

Hours of operation: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.

Admission to the museum is free. There is a nominal charge for the theater and simulator.

For more information check the website.


About the Author

Marilyn Jones has been a journalist for more than 30 years and is currently a freelance feature writer specializing in travel. Her articles have appeared in major newspapers including the BostonGlobe, Akron Beacon Journal and Chicago Sun-Times as well as regional travel magazines.

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