Travel ideas for Veterans Day ... and Doomsday

By Thom Patterson, CNNUpdated 8th November 2012
For four years, Yvonne Morris worked at Missile Site 571-7. Literally, it was a real hell hole.
Deep underground in a high-security control room, she and her crew held the keys to an apocalyptic hammer -- a nuclear rocket that could flatten an entire city in just 30 minutes.
"I know I would have been able to launch, if ordered," said Morris, an ex-Air Force lieutenant. "But if we launched, then life as we know it was over."
Based near Tucson, Arizona, during the 1980s, Morris joined thousands of steely-eyed missile-men and women who helped bring a peaceful end to the Cold War.
The silo -- now the Titan Missile Museum -- is one of hundreds of American travel destinations that honor the nation's history of military readiness and sacrifice.
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How about a fire-spewing WWII battle re-enactment with an actual flamethrower? Or a massive warship that saved 3,000 refugees? Or a training ground for some of the toughest fighting men and women in the world?
Titan Missile Museum
Of all these magnets for the military enthusiast, one thing sets the Titan museum apart: It's the world's only remaining underground installation housing an actual Titan II missile.
"It's not a mockup," says Morris, who's now the museum director. "It's the real deal. Except," she laughs "there's no warhead."
That's probably a good thing, because the Titan II carried the nation's deadliest nuclear warhead -- equal to more than 9 million tons of dynamite.
During its heyday from the 1960s into the 1980s, more than 50 Titan II launch sites dotted Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas. Decades after the Cold War, enthusiasts can now snuggle up close and cozy with a doomsday device.
A special observation deck at the museum allows a breathtaking view of the rocket from tip to tail.
HGTV addicts take note: The underground bunker is designed to rock and roll.
Literally, because the whole complex is cushioned by giant springs.
The floors are separate from the walls so the facility can survive giant shock waves from, say, an earthquake, or perhaps an enemy nuclear missile attack. Careful! When you step into a room, don't trip over the 11-inch gap in the floor. That's called the "rattle space."
Oh, and it's not every day that you can see humongous steel blast doors weighing 3 tons. Don't forget to shut the door behind you on the way out.
On the whole, life in the hole wasn't bad, to hear Morris tell it. Several four-person crews each rotated 24-hour work shifts in the underground habitat. Surprisingly, it was hard to get bored, she said, because they just "drilled and drilled and drilled." Performing equipment maintenance, testing circuits and systems and monthly training, testing and evaluation.
A quarter century after the site was decommissioned, it still holds secrets. We still don't know exactly where the missile was pointed. That's classified.
Did the missile site ever come close to launching? Also classified.
Those untold secrets are shared by the launch crews and their chains of command. We'll likely never know.
U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles pointing at each other created fear of total annihilation on both sides, historians say, helping to prevent either country from attacking first and starting WWIII. Air Force missile crews played a vital link in that strategy.
"I guess unsung hero is a way to talk about the folks who served during the Cold War," says Morris. "In the next 20 years, as more documents are declassified, we're going to really appreciate more about what went on."
WWII comes to Texas
In Fredericksburg, Texas, volunteers bring World War II battles to life. Firing spectacular Hollywood pyrotechnics and authentic weapons, they re-enact a 10-minute battle where U.S Marines capture a Japanese-held beachhead.
"We can't re-create what war was like," says Brandon Vinyard of the National Museum of the Pacific War. "But this gives people a little bit more of a sense of the chaos of battle."
With plenty of safety precautions in place, visitors enjoy a close view from about 8 feet from the beachhead, Vinyard said. Battle highlights include three huge explosions -- one equaling three sticks of dynamite -- and a star burst that shoots 50 feet high.
There's also a spectacular demonstration of a flamethrower -- a portable blowtorch weapon used to wipe out pockets of enemy resistance.
"If you're in the bleachers you can actually feel the heat of the flamethrower," says Vinyard. "And you can feel the concussion of some of the explosions."
No other facility in the nation does anything like this on this scale on a regular basis, says Vinyard.
It bills itself as the only museum entirely dedicated to telling the story of WWII in the Pacific.
About a year ago a former U.S. Marine and his young grandson found themselves walking through the museum gallery when the veteran came upon a giant mural of a vintage photo on the wall. The picture showed a group of Marines catching a breather on a hillside, remembers Vinyard. "The veteran pointed to one of the young Marines in the photo and said to his grandson, 'That's me. This is where we were.'"
Vinyard's story exemplifies the museum's mission, he said, "to inspire our youth by honoring our heroes."
Witnessing a 'transformation'
This Friday on a parade ground on a marshy barrier island off South Carolina, bands will play, Marines will march, the American flag will fly high, and a commanding general will speak.
Senior drill instructors will dismiss their platoons and hundreds of new graduates will shout, "aye aye sir!" or "aye aye ma'am!"
The drill instructors will then sheath their swords and march away.
With that -- Parris Island marks the end of another spectacular graduation ceremony and a fresh beginning for hundreds of new Marines.
Since it opened in 1915, the U.S. Marine Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina, has become legendary through movies, songs and novels. It has also produced hundreds of thousands of fighting men and women. Military enthusiasts often join family members and other loved ones who visit "The Depot" to enjoy graduation ceremonies -- an unspoiled piece of Americana that's been largely unchanged for almost a century.
Oh, one ceremony modification worth noting: In the 1920s, a dog entered the picture. Marines adopted a canine mascot after German soldiers began referring to the hard-fighting Marines as "Devil Dogs."
Nowadays, that dog is a 16-month-old English Bulldog mascot named Lance Cpl. Legend.
According to Legend's handler, Lance Cpl. Alexandra Stamateris, the dog "goes absolutely berserk" on Thursdays and Fridays -- the usual days the Depot holds Family Day and Graduation Day. "We joke that he has such a hard life because on Thursdays and Fridays he gets to be pet by a thousand people."
Since the 1920s, Parris Island has hosted between 12 and 18 mascot bulldogs. Legend comes from a special bloodline, as the great-grandson of the University of Georgia mascot, UGA V.
During the ceremony, "you see America," says Col. Robert Jones, Parris Island's commanding officer for recruit training. Graduation represents a cross-section of society from every state in the union celebrating the transformation of men and women from recruits into Marines.
In fact, the physical transformation is so extreme that moms will run out on the parade grounds to hug their sons "and they'll end up hugging someone else's kid," Col. Jones says with a chuckle. "These young men and women change so much during their training," he explained. Jones said it's a physical change, but also a change inside. "They're more disciplined. They understand our core values of honor, courage and commitment."
It's the drill instructors, Jones said, "who make that transformation happen."
Not all of the ceremonies are public, however. Prior to the graduation the recruits, staff and drill instructors hold a private tradition. The Eagle Globe and Anchor ceremony recognizes the intense bond between the drill instructor and the recruit forged by their 70 days of extreme training.
"It's actually a very emotional ceremony," says Jones. The recruits are charged with carrying on the traditions and legacy of the Marines who came before them. "For a lot of the recruits you'll see tears come to their eyes as the drill instructor puts a small eagle globe and anchor emblem in the recruit's hand, shakes their hand, calls them Marines for the first time and tells them, 'job well done.'"
USS Midway: Unparalleled service
In San Diego lives a Navy pioneer named Midway.
The aircraft carrier USS Midway -- now a museum docked at the Navy Pier -- boasts quite a resume.
It's the longest serving carrier of the 20th century -- 47 years before retiring. Nearly 200,000 sailors served aboard the Midway -- average age 19. It was the first carrier to sail into the Arctic during winter.
And in 1975 Midway set the bar for humanitarian missions with Operation Frequent Wind, part of the U.S response to the fall of South Vietnam and the resulting rush of refugees. When it was all said and done, the Midway was credited for saving some 3,000 refugees, who would otherwise have been left behind.
"Some very courageous decisions had to be made in terms of pushing helicopters overboard to create space for those refugees," says Scott McGaugh, author and director of marketing for the USS Midway Museum. "You talk to sailors who were aboard at that time and they all will tell you, it was the highlight of their military career."
Among San Diego's 170 tourism attractions, the USS Midway is rated No. 1 on Visitors can climb into aircraft cockpits, sit in the captain's chair and stretch out in a sailor's bunk. You can go into the brig and see what it was really like to be confined to a jail cell aboard a Navy ship.
Check out the flight deck, and the bridge -- the ship's nerve center. Imagine what it was like to launch some of the first strikes against Iraq at the dawn of 1991's Operation Desert Storm. Or take your imagination back further to the days after World War II. "It's a remarkable amount of history that's now being preserved on the ship," says McGaugh.
On Friday, November 9, the Midway is testing new waters with a fresh venture: college basketball.
Right smack dab on the ship's 4-acre deck Syracuse University will battle San Diego State University on a temporary court with room for about 4,000 fans to cheer from temporary stands.
Then on Monday San Diego hosts its annual Veterans Day parade, led by legendary pilot Chuck Yeager, who in 1947 was credited with breaking the sound barrier.
"This week is a good time to pause and reflect, for just a moment," says McGaugh, "the thousands of men and women who served their country to defend the freedoms that so many of us enjoy. It's a great time to simply pause and thank a veteran."