The biggest attraction at the Navy SEALs' national museum isn't memorialized in any artifact or mentioned in any display. But that doesn't keep visitors from asking.
The May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden at the hands of SEALs has brought a spike in visitors to the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum, seeking a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the mission was pulled off. Attendance has roughly tripled since the raid, visitors are pummeling docents with questions and people wanting to express their gratitude have flooded the museum with letters of thanks.
"They're hoping to get ground truth here," said Michael Howard, the museum's executive director and a former SEAL.
Visitors hankering for an in-depth look at the raid likely won't get what they're looking for — not yet at least. But the museum's history of the SEALs and their predecessors gives a glimpse into their secretive world, and the type of men called to conduct such a mission.
The museum is built at the birthplace of the SEALs. From 1943 to 1946, Fort Pierce was home to a makeshift training encampment for Naval Combat Demolition Teams and Underwater Demolition Teams, the forerunners to the SEALs. The 26-year-old museum chronicles that history from the start.
Mannequins are dressed in uniforms worn by the elite squads through the years, cases memorialize their most notable members, and weapons and equipment from the past 60 years are contained throughout. Outside, there is a Huey helicopter, mini submarines and even the lifeboat from the SEALs daring rescue of a cargo ship captain from the hands of pirates two years ago.
Cases are filled with antiquated life jackets, gauges and breathing devices, and other items, including a tattered Japanese flag and a surrender document signed by the head of the Imperial Army at the end of World War II.
For now, the museum is heavy on the decades-past story of the SEALs, in places like the World War II battles of Normandy, Okinawa and Iwo Jima. But the stories of the men of those earlier years of the squad are perhaps most inspiring because they had so little history — and technology — on their side.
"We had junk," said Chuck Thiess, the head docent and a former member of a UDT team. "We didn't have any manuals, we didn't have anything to go by, but it was fabulous."
The stories of men like Thiess are what bring this museum to life. He knew he wanted to be a Navy diver and even today, he swims frequently. Sometimes, he'll even put his underwater skills to test, though he can't hold his breath for nearly the three-plus minutes he did in his younger days.
"I challenge my grandchildren every now and again and sometimes I'll whip 'em," said Thiess, who at 81, grips a wooden cane in his left hand and sports a faded tattoo of an anchor on his right forearm.
The very idea of a museum devoted to the secretive SEALs befuddles some. Howard says he constantly asks himself "Is this acceptable? Are we saying too much here?" when designing exhibits.
The museum is preparing to open a new wing — more than twice the size of the original building — which its staff hopes to focus on the post-9/11 world of the SEALs. It's tentatively slated to open with temporary exhibits by Veterans Day. The museum is trying to raise $1.5 million to create permanent exhibits it hopes will be on display a year later.
What the new building may contain of the bin Laden raid is not yet known. But the museum's staff isn't all that comfortable with the immense exposure given the SEALs since the mission was accomplished. Howard thinks it was a mistake to disclose who conducted the raid, much less all of the other details divulged by Washington.
As SEALs, Howard said, "You're OK operating in the dark, figuratively and literally. I think most guys are uncomfortable with the frenzy lately."
Still, Howard recognizes for good or for bad, the bin Laden raid is bringing more attention to the museum. Right now, only th gift shop appears to be overtly taking advantage, with T-shirts for sale that say "The Last Thing Going Through Usama bin Laden's Mind Were Navy SEAL Bullets."
How the museum will adapt to the post-bin Laden world and its own expansion remains to be seen. What Howard hopes is that visitors will take away the commitment and sacrifices of the men who have made the cut. They have been called Frogmen and Demos and SEALs and come from all walks of life, he said, but in many ways are the same.
"The essence of the guy that they were looking for in World War II is a carbon copy of the guy they're looking for now," he said.