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VIRGINIA BEACH, VA. — At one time, this was state-of-the-art synthetic military training: an indoor theater stacked with 200 tiered seats surrounding a stage about the size of a high school gym. About two-thirds of the floor is flat and painted blue, filled with dozens of model ships — flat-topped amphibious warriors and their smaller boats, painted neon green and orange.
The theater’s other third is rolling, model-train scenery in hues of green and brown. It looks like a militarized hobby set, with tracks, miniature industrial plants and anti-aircraft batteries. Wires float over the tableau.
Since 1955, the Amphibious Warfare Demonstrator has shown the details of a proper amphibious assault to a half-million personnel and civilians. But last week, the long-running show closed. “Cats” lasted only 18 years on Broadway.
Time and technology caught up to the trainer at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story. A generation of Marines and sailors can invade almost any country or planet on an Xbox, making the theater and its special effects seem dated.
“It’s kind of sad it’s going away,” said Marine Col. Robert Curtis, commanding officer for the Atlantic expeditionary warfare training group.
The trainer was built at Little Creek for $198,000, about $1.7 million in today’s dollars, to enhance classroom instruction on executing a large-scale land assault from the sea. The sea and coastline mirror no specific country, and the fictional war scenarios have been updated over the years.
One morning last week, civilian operator Dennis Lenahan ducked into the control room like the Great Oz and started the show for a handful of guests.
Black lights flickered to life. An announcer with a movie-trailer voice set up the scene. Spotlights shone on a drone, attached to a wire, launching the first missile. Red lights blinked next to ships commencing fire.
A railroad bridge broke in half under imaginary strikes. The model factory tumbled to pieces. A C-130 transport plane squeaked along an overhead wire. Two paratroopers in red-and-white plastic chutes thudded behind enemy lines.
U.S. forces successfully completed Operation Brewing Storm in about seven minutes.
A full demonstration can run an hour, encompassing different phases of a strike. Lenahan said it takes about a half-hour to set up. Sometimes, he said, parts break. “It’s old.”
Curtis saw his first demonstration there in 1990 as a young officer. It gave him and others insight into the different layers and effects of a sea-based attack. New grunts, future admirals and generals all came through the theater and class.
But Curtis said he knows the demonstrator doesn’t wow today’s sailors and Marines. They laugh at the black lights. “They grew up in a digital era,” Curtis said. “They walk in and say, ‘Hey, this is pretty low-tech.’ “
Attendance slid from 10,000 visitors annually to about 3,000 last year, he said. Recently, foreign dignitaries, junior ROTC classes and business groups have funneled through. It became a favorite of Boy Scout troops.
A video will replace the hourlong show.
A few weeks ago, instructors from the Navy school of music dropped in to check out the space. They loved the acoustics. The school will move there in a few months.
The staff has received several requests for ships and aircraft but hasn’t yet decided how to disperse the replicas.
Tools were donated to a high school, Curtis said. Part of the set will go to a model train club.