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In the Army’s new museum, the soldiers look alive and the battle scenes are all too real

The service’s $400 million flagship museum at Fort Belvoir is set to open next spring

The $400 million Army museum, set to open in 2020 in Fort Belvoir, Va., recreates a scene from the famous WWI Meuse-Argonne battle in France. (Video: Michael E. Ruane/The Washington Post)

The make-believe battlefield is small. And there’s a bullet-pocked French tank beside the pathway. So before the figure of the American machine-gunner reaches the shell hole, B.J. Ervick detaches his hands, just to be safe.

Fixed to metal shanks, and with screws in the knuckles, they come off easily. Ervick, the production director, lays them on cushioned packing paper. Then he and a colleague lift the squinting doughboy and carry him feet first to the Western Front.

It is the fall of 1918 in the new National Museum of the U.S. Army. And experts are re-creating a scene from the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France, which helped end World War I in defeat for Germany and victory for the U.S. and allied forces.

The handless American — Soldier No. 14 — is gently placed in the shell hole, near blasted tree trunks and an abandoned German howitzer.

He’ll get his helmet, his machine gun and his hands back later.

Inside this gleaming new museum, scheduled to open next spring at Fort Belvoir, Va., time is growing short.

Army's history awaits its museum

Technicians in hard hats crawl over battlefields littered with boxes, ladders and wiring. And the cast figures of soldiers such as No. 14 wait to go into action.

The $400 million steel-and-glass facility, about 20 miles south of Washington, will be the Army’s flagship museum when it opens on June 4, on Liberty Drive off the Fairfax County Parkway.

It has already selected 1,300 “micro” artifacts and 19 “macro” artifacts — including a famous World War II Sherman tank from the Battle of the Bulge and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle from the wars in Iraq — for inclusion. The latter two are already in place.

Among the most moving artifacts is the wreckage of an engine from “Super 6-1,” the first helicopter shot down in the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Somalia in which 18 Americans were killed.

And among the most striking exhibits will be several “immersion” tableaux, which seek to place the visitor with the soldiers, amid the sights and sounds of combat.

Over several days last month, curators moved many of the specially cast soldier figures from the base at Fort Belvoir to the museum to be installed.

“Wow,” Paul Morando, chief of exhibits, says as the work takes place. “We are actually starting to look like a museum.”

“You see the walls going up … and the construction of it, but then when you start seeing the artifacts go in and the cast figures, reality is setting in that it is going to be … a world-class museum,” he says.

A few days later, wearing a white hard hat and yellow safety vest, he paces like a Hollywood director as artists from StudioEIS, which created the cast figures, position the World War I soldiers on the battlefield.

“They have bolts that come out of the bottom of their shoes,” Morando says. Holes have to be drilled into the concrete that makes up the simulated ground, and, “based on our art direction,” the figures have to be fixed in place.

The figures, which are not fully finished, were molded mostly with the help of actual U.S. soldiers.

“Everybody here has been life cast,” says Ervick, of StudioEIS. “We take a mold off their body and their faces and their hands. And then we have to assemble it and build it.”

Most of the life casting was done in the firm’s studio in Brooklyn. The casts are composites of plastic, urethane, foam and other materials, Ervick says.

The figures were authentically clothed and outfitted by Artistry in Motion, a company that specializes in historical consultation for the arts, the museum said.

(In a scene of fighting in Iraq, the creators placed a tin of smokeless tobacco in one soldier’s back pocket and a dog tag in another’s boot. Morando says real soldiers were asked, “Hey, what are we missing?”)

The World War I tableau depicts a group of American soldiers, or doughboys, as they were called, in pursuit of fleeing but unseen German soldiers.

The Yanks, men from the 140th Infantry Regiment, are clad in olive drab uniforms, with packs, canteens and entrenching shovels. They wear leg wrappings and hobnail boots.

They are placed in a circular room where battle images will be projected on the walls. As the projection system is tested, it casts a weird grid pattern of light on the scene.

The figures first had to be unscrewed from their wooden cases, then carried to the battlefield tableau by Ervick and sculptors from the company.

Morando then had to decide where he wanted them.

The team realized that one soldier, where he was first placed, would block a small part of the wall projection.

Museum specialist Sara E. Bowen asks: “Can we dig anything” to get the figure lower?

“Hang tight, guys,” Ervick says. “Everybody hang tight.”

He disappears for moment and returns with a hammer and chisel. He gouges a small indentation in the concrete surface. The figure is maneuvered there and is out of the field of projection.

“Looks good,” Morando says. “Looks real good.”

But another figure who is running looks as if he should be moved closer to the shell hole. “Because his next step is going to be inside the hole,” Morando says.

He studies the scene, and the soldier is moved.

Occasionally the figures are laid down on blankets, looking as if they had been killed in the fight.

They are adjusted and moved around the scene until Morando is fairly satisfied.

“Do you feel that we can mark [the places for] these figures?” Ervick asks.

Morando says places for three of the five could be marked.

“We have to worry about where their lighting is, where electric is, how all the scenic is and … the story they’re trying to tell,” Ervick says during a break in the work.

“They’re trying to tell this [story of a] no-man’s-land battle World War I scene,” he says. “This is an immersion scene, which means that the whole gallery is going to be like you feel like you just walked into it. They’re going to have video and sounds and lights and all kinds of rumbles and things like that.”

Once Morando is happy with the figures’ placement in the scene, “we bolt them down to the ground,” Ervick says.

While all the work is aimed at authenticity, the men depicted and the scene itself are make-believe.

But another element of the tableau, just across the visitor walkway, is truly authentic.

The Renault FT 17 tank, shrouded in an opaque protective cover, is one that actually fought in the bloody battle, the museum says.

Small by modern standards, the “Five of Hearts” still bears the scars from the Meuse-Argonne, which claimed 26,000 American lives and was the deadliest battle in U.S. history.

Manned by Americans, the tank has 1,300 bullet holes in its armor, the museum says, and one bullet that is still lodged in the tread from the titanic fight more than a century ago.

Read more:

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The veterans were desperate. Gen. MacArthur ordered U.S. troops to attack them.