5 Ways to Experience Military History in Abilene
Walk among the remains of a mid-19th century fort, check out firearms of the era, and immerse yourself in the stories of one of the U.S. Army’s most distinguished World War II divisions. Settled on what was once the outer reaches of the Texas frontier, Abilene’s history with the military is rich with fascinating tales of bravery and heroism. There are many ways you can experience these chapters of the Lone Star State’s lore for yourself. Read on to learn more, then plan your next visit to Abilene.
Travel Tip: Are you an active-duty member of the military? Enjoy free admission throughout the summer at the 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum, Frontier Texas!, and The Grace Museum, all of which are Blue Star Museums.
The Sharp "Big 50" rifle on display at Frontier Texas!
See How Frontier Forts Helped Win the West
While the Wild West is defined by wandering cowboys and pioneer settlers, there’s much more to the tall tale that made Texas what it is today. Much of what made westward expansion in the Lone Star State possible was the mid-19th century establishment of a line of U.S. military forts, including nearby Fort Phantom Hill, which helped protect travelers and keep the peace. Learn more about this chapter of Texas history at Frontier Texas!, a museum dedicated to the tall tales of the Old West located in downtown Abilene. It also serves as the hub for the entire Texas Forts Trail and houses a regional visitor center.
Learn about Texas’ forts and the people who served in them in the interactive Military on the Frontier exhibit. While you’re here, check out the Guns of the West exhibit, home to the Fort Phantom Hill Firearms Collection that charts the development of guns from early muzzle-loading rifles to rapid-fire Colts and Winchesters. Earlier in your adventure in the Old West, you’ll encounter interactive exhibits that outline the history of the Comanche Empire, the trade of buffalo hides, and how settlements were founded on the edges of civilization. At the end, you’ll leave with a deeper understanding of how frontier military forts helped win the west.
Ruins and chimneys from Fort Phantom Hill. Picture in the middle: Texas Historical Commission
Explore an Authentic 19th-Century Fort
Standing over a secluded grassy slope 15 miles north of Abilene, the solitary brick chimneys of Fort Phantom Hill cast an eerie shadow over what was once an important military base. Formed in 1851 to protect settlers and California-bound travelers, Phantom Hill was one of several forts founded on the Texas frontier. At its peak, the fort housed five infantry companies, and it was led by two U.S. Army officers (John Joseph Abercrombie and Henry Hopkins Sibley) who would attain the rank of brigadier general for the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War.
Stroll through the ghostly remains of the fort today and you’ll encounter three original stone buildings, more than a dozen chimneys, and the foundations of buildings that once stood. Take a moment to observe the surrounding environment and you just might feel like you’ve taken a step back in time to the fort’s heyday.
The 12th armored 44th Tank Battalion crew. 12th Armored Museum collection
Hear the Tales of American Heroes
As the fighting on the western front of World War II entered a fever pitch, the 12th Armored Division of the U.S. Army stepped into the fray. Based in Abilene at Camp Barkeley, one of the largest military installations during the war, the division participated in offensives across the Rhine River and the liberation of Dachau’s infamous satellite annihilation camps. Known as the Hellcats, the division was responsible for the capture of Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann and Wernher Von Braun, a rocket scientist who would go on to play a key role at NASA.
Men from the 12th Armored 44th Tank Battalion 2nd squadron 8th Calvary. 12th Armored Museum collection
Experience World War II through the eyes of the men of the Hellcats at the 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum. Much more than a standard museum with static displays, this museum provides a more personal perspective on the war with recordings of the troops who had a hand in liberating concentration camps. The men who fought in the 12th have provided artifacts, photographs, personal testimonies, weapons, and uniforms from the war throughout the three-floor museum. Don’t miss the seven-part diorama of the battles at Herrlisheim, France in January 1945, when the Hellcats held off a German attempt to recapture critical fuel and munitions housed in Strasbourg. Take a trip downtown to the Historic Paramount Theatre, which was a popular entertainment destination for soldiers stationed at Camp Barkley, during WWII.
The Dyess Linear Air Park is the largest airpark in the USAF with 34 historic aircraft. It opens on weekdays to the public. Dyess Air Force Base Museum
Want even more military history? Stop by the Dyess Air Force Base Museum and Linear Air Park, the latter of which is the largest airpark in the U.S. Air Force with 34 historic aircraft. The museum tells the story of Lt. Col Dyess along with the history of the base and Abilene Army Airfield. On July 19, 2019, an expansion to the Dyess Memorial Park was dedicated to the 76 Airmen who have died in service to their country while attached to Dyess AFB. The sculpture is aligned with the sun so that a ray of light shines directly on each monument at the time of the airman’s loss. The memorial is open to the public and anyone may visit. Meanwhile, museum hours are 9:30 to 4:30 on weekdays. The airpark is located on the air force base, so you’ll need to arrange a tour in advance of your visit.
Larry Sanders, owner of Atlas Missile Base Cold War Center in Lawn
and a photo of the Atlas missile in downtown Abilene.
Descend into an Actual Missile Silo
First launched in 1957, the Atlas was America’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) developed just in time for the Cold War. Its creation led to the establishment of subterranean missile silos across the country, including a dozen around Dyess Air Force Base. While most are now obsolete, you can explore one of these relics of another era at the Atlas Missile Base Cold War Center. Completed in 1962, this silo features nine-foot-thick walls and an 18.5-story underground structure that could survive a Soviet attack.
Your journey starts on the surface of the 8.6-acre site and descends two stories down to the launch control center, passing through massive one-ton manganese steel blast doors along the way. Continue to the crew’s quarters and the room that once housed the launch controllers and communications technology, checking out historic photographs of ICBM development and the site’s operation along the way. Then experience something few have: the chance to step into an actual missile silo. Try not to let your jaw hit the floor as you walk into this nearly 20-story-tall cavernous structure that once held a missile. Take it all in, then try not to be too surprised when you find out that all this was built in just 14 months.
To visit the silo, book a private tour by calling 325.280.9282 or contacting the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Discover Abilene’s Other Historic Hotspots
Although Abilene’s military history is extensive, there are different kinds of treasures of the past that you can discover here. Start at the Tayler County History Center, a collection of homes and structures from the 1800s through the 1920s, including the original 1879 Taylor County Courthouse. Located in the former seat of Taylor County, it’s a great place to visit if you’re wanting to immerse yourself in Texas as it was at the turn of the 20th century. There’s more history to uncover at The Grace Museum, Abilene’s preeminent art museum and cultural center housed in an opulent hotel built along the Fort Worth and El Paso railroad line in 1909. Admire the building’s architecture before exploring its exhibits of Texas art and its children’s museum that is full of hands-on activities.
From its frontier fort to its World War II history, Abilene has plenty to offer military history enthusiasts. Learn more about Abilene and plan your visit here.
Indeed, Abilene’s long relationship with the military and Dyess AFB recently earned the 2020 title as a “Great American Defense Community.”
A short drive to Sweetwater takes you to the WASP Museum honoring the Women Air Force Service Pilots of WWII, housed on Avenger Field, where the spirited group once trained.
Bookmark advertising the National WASP WWII Museum in Sweetwater, Texas.
The front of the bookmark contains a picture of a procession at Avenger Field and portraits of Jacqueline Cochran, General "Hap" Arnold, and Nancy Love.
Museum National WASP WWII/ Portal of Texas History
Head to nearby Albany to see another frontier military site, along with the official Texas Longhorn herd at Fort Griffin State Historic Site and Fort Griffin State Park. Each June, the area hosts the longest-running outdoor musical in the state of Texas, a real hoedown that tells the Wild West tales of the military, cowboys and Native Americans of the region at the Fort Griffin Fandangle. Fort fans will want to stop in to see U.S. Fort Chadbourne, a short drive south of Abilene, to tour its grounds and visitor center, which opens Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Re-enactments of life on the frontier at Fort Griffin Living History Days in Albany, Texas. Fort Griffin
The annual Abilene Freedom Festival will celebrate the city’s military heritage July 3-4 with celebrations downtown and on the grounds of the Expo Center of Taylor County.
The Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Abilene regularly hosts wreath-laying ceremonies and events on federal holidays dedicated to the military.
July 4th Freedom Festival downtown parade.