Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Alabama
As World War II raged overseas, Tuskegee, Alabama, became the site of a barrier-breaking program when African American pilots and mechanics were granted U.S. military training there. They passed with flying colors. In fact during their service the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, whose main job was to escort Allied bombers, successfully protected these planes and eventually shot down more than 100 enemy aircraft.
Today you can explore the site's Visitor Center, where you'll find related exhibits and a theater that shows historical films of the Tuskegee Airmen in action. Then head over to Hangar #1, climb into a 1940s flight simulator, and listen to the recorded voices of these heroic men. The hangar also houses the intelligence room for "authorized personnel only," along with PT-17 Stearman and J3 Piper Cub aircraft that were once used for flight training at nearbyMoton Field (now a city airport).
What's more, if you take a tour of this site over Memorial Day weekend, you'll see the Tuskegee Airmen Fly-In—complete with aerobatics, special exhibits, and food—and be in the company of "World War II vets along with their modern-day counterparts (334-724-0922; nps.gov/tuai).
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota
Ride a small elevator 31 feet below the prairie, 75 miles east of Rapid City, to a tiny, egg-shaped capsule, the former home-away-from-home for Air Force officers charged with launching a counterattack against any nuclear-missile strike during the cold war. For three decades, crews lived and worked inside similar small rooms that were suspended on giant shock absorbers, with massive eight-ton doors closed behind them. Their momentous jobs: To stand ready to arm a Minuteman II missile able to reach speeds of 15,000 miles per hour.
The belowground tour reveals only a part of this site—although, we admit, it's the coolest. For some fresh air, take a topside tour of the launch-control facility, once staffed by security personnel to protect missileers and their weapons. (Still in place are the facility's orange kitchen cabinets, Formica countertops, and shag carpet.) Then drive 11 miles northwest to the now unarmed, five-story-deep Minuteman II missile silo to listen to a park ranger describe the Minuteman system. Though originally covered by a 90-ton door, today the training missile is visible through a clear dome (605-433-5552; nps.gov/mimi).
Manzanar National Historic Site, California
In 1942 the U.S. government detained more than 110,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent in ten remote, military-style camps across the United States. More than 10,000 of the internees were sent to Manzanar War Relocation Center in eastern California, halfway between Los Angeles and Reno, Nevada. Though hundreds of structures once dotted the 6,200 acres of flat, high desert to form a self-supporting "city"—including schools, an infirmary, and 504 barracks—only three of the site's original structures remain. But there's still lots to see. Get a glimpse into the lives of these internees at the Interpretive Center. You'll see a replicated camp barracks—with a cot and a single hanging light bulb—plus other artifacts such as fruit-crate furniture, internee-created scrapbooks, and even high-school diplomas. To fully absorb this shameful episode in American history, take a brochure and follow a 3.2-mile self-guided driving tour in your car. You'll pass the original sentry posts, rock gardens, concrete foundations, and camp cemetery, the final resting place of six internees (760-878-2194; nps.gov/manz).