Museum building D-2502 before facelift in 1996.
The JFK Special Warfare Museum operates under the umbrella of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (USAJFKSWCS), the schoolhouse for Special Forces, Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations. Maintenance of the collection falls under the regulatory and functional guidance of the United States Army Center of Military History (CMH). In 1986, the JFK Special Warfare Museum was charged as the United States Army Special Operations Command’s agent for the preservation of the USASOC material culture located both on Fort Liberty and at off-site locations.
BG William P. Yarborough, the Commander of the US Army Center for Special Warfare/US Army Special Warfare School, in 1960 developed an encompassing plan to ensure the inculcation of the US Army Special Forces within the US Army. As part of his vision, he included a museum. He felt that a museum would visibly indicate the unit’s stature to the rest of the Army while also educating the rank and file to their lineage and history. Originally the museum's mission was parochial, exclusively spotlighting the history of Special Forces. The mission, over the past 45 years, has evolved and now encompasses the PSYOP and CA branches.
For sixteen years, between 1962 and 1978, the Museum was housed in a wooden orderly building on Gruber Road. Manned by Special Forces NCOs detailed to the facility, the museum existed on end-of-year funds, monies dropped in a donation box and whatever could be scrounged. Exhibits were constructed by PSYWAR/PSYOP personnel. After the Vietnam War ended, many World War II era wooden buildings were slated to be demolished. The fate of the museum was further threatened by the expansion of Gruber and Reilly Roads. In 1978, the museum was closed until its new home in the classroom half of building D-2502 on the corner of Ardennes and Marion Streets was completed.
Since 1980, the Museum slowly expanded and upgraded its footprint. Storage, originally maintained in a wooden building behind the Smoke Bomb Hill Chapel and on the edge of the Military Assistance Training Advisor Mile, a running trail, was moved to bldg. D-1307, a concrete warehouse specific space. In 1995, the Museum assumed the remainder of bldg. D-2502. The Museum acquired two bays in a building behind it for its exhibit fabrication shop in 1999. When the Museum acquired the entire building, the Museum Association funded the effort to reface and renovate the building to look more like a museum as opposed to the office and classroom space it had been. The renovation also included the enlargement of the lobby, restrooms, and gift shop. Further refurbishments allowed for the addition of another exhibit gallery of 400 sq. feet on the other end of the building dedicated to illustrating SOF’s role in the Global War on Terror.
In 2005, the USAJFKSWCS campus plan was approved and received MILCON funding. Unfortunately, the Museum (Building D-2502) was located where the new Training Command building was envisioned. In 2016, renovation began on Building D-2815 across from the USAJFKSWCS Chapel. The renovation tripled the size of the museum galleries and consolidated the museum administrative offices, library/conference room, arms room, and exhibit fabrication shop in one building. In 2017, the Museum moved into the newly renovated space. Storage is still maintained in another building. Exhibits are divided into three continuous galleries: WWI to 1959; Vietnam to 1990 operations; and the modern conflicts resulting from 9/11.
In early 2020, command authority of the Museum was transferred from USAJFKSWCS to the USASOC History Office. Due to the transfer and complications by COVID-19, the museum was closed to the public. During this time, the museum staff completed a 100% inventory of the museum’s holdings. In August 2020, after an outcry from the community about the museum’s extended closure, USASOC established a Museum Advisory Board of retired officers and NCOs to advise USASOC on the best way forward. Their recommendation, which was accepted, was to transfer the Museum back to SWCS and to reopen as soon as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. The Museum transferred in October 2020 and re-opened on 1 April 2021.
Original Museum building sign.