Arizona Military Museum in Phoenix

The Arizona Military Museum is a lesser-known museum in Phoenix that many Arizona residents are unaware even exists. The museum is located just outside Papago Park within the Papago Park Military Reservation, a facility of the Arizona Army National Guard, near 52nd Street and McDowell. Papago Park nearby is known for its uniquely shaped buttes and as the location of the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Gardens. Since the museum is located on an active military facility, the area is fenced off and visitors will need to enter through the base’s main security check point. An armed guard will check your identification before you are able to enter the complex.

Arizona National Guard Use of the Building

The actual museum is located in the Arizona National Guard Arsenal building that was constructed by the Works Progress Administration in 1936 for the state’s quartermaster regiment. The original hand carved wooden doors, now displayed inside, were created by a World War I veteran and feature images from the Great War and the influenza epidemic. The history of the National Guard’s use of this land for military purposes began in 1909 when the northwest portion of Papago Park was withdrawn from the public and used by the 158th Infantry Regiment of the Arizona National Guard. Uses over the years have included a small arms target and rifle range, a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp between 1933-1938, a training ground for an infantry regiment at the beginning of World War II, a prisoner of war camp during WWII between 1942-1946, an Army Reserve Center since 1952, and as the headquarters for the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs since 1975.

Exhibits Overview

Upon entering the museum, there are a number of exhibits displaying Arizona military history from the Spanish colonial period to the present. Uniforms and weapons fill the display cases and offer an intriguing look into the role that Arizona has played within the various wars that the United States has been involved in. These include the Mexican-American War, conflicts with Native Americans, the Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and more recent efforts against terrorism. Several items, including machine guns and German armor, reveal insights into America’s involvement in WWI. A number of displays cover Arizona’s involvement in WWII and include uniforms, weapons, and flags from American, Japanese, and German soldiers. Special attention is given to the Native American code talkers that helped to safely communicate messages during the war.

Prisoner of War Camp

As mentioned before, this area of Papago Park was used as a prisoner of war camp during WWII and on December 23, 1944, 25 German navy officers and sailors escaped through a 178 foot tunnel they dug after an elaborate plan they devised. Several hundred soldiers, FBI agents, and Native American scouts were mobilized to locate the escaped Germans. All of the prisoners were eventually captured, but some almost made it to the Mexican border. The Great Papago Escape was the largest escape of prisoners from a POW camp on American soil during the war. An exhibit on the second floor of the museum covers this widely forgotten event from Arizona’s past. Original photographs of the prisoners, as well as paintings and other items that prisoners made while at the camp are on display.

Vietnam War Exhibit

In an additional exhibit room downstairs, several items from the Vietnam War are available for viewing, including a number of uniforms, weapons, photographs, and miscellaneous items such as the “Down with Ho Chi Minh” banner seen here. Items from both American and Vietnamese soldiers are included. The U.S. fought alongside the Republic of South Vietnam against communist North Vietnam during the war and a large yellow and red flag of South Vietnam hangs on the wall above a U.S. Army helicopter from the period. A U.S. Army Jeep from the war is parked beside that as well.

Final Notes

The final exhibits in the second story gallery cover such topics as the First Gulf War, the War in Iraq, the global War on Terrorism, and women’s involvement in the military. While relatively small, the Arizona Military Museum offers an interesting look into the state’s military history from the earliest Spanish explorers to the present. The museum is free to the public, but does accept donations. Run entirely by volunteers, the museum is currently only open on Saturdays and Sundays between 1 to 4pm, so be sure to check the hours before you arrive.

Suggested Reading:
Sheridan, Thomas; ArizonaArizona: A History by Thomas E. Sheridan
Trimble, Marshall; ArizonaArizona: A Cavalcade of History by Marshall Trimble