There are an endless number of reasons to visit the magnetic city of New Orleans, but this time, for me, there was one overpowering one: to experience the National World War II Museum located in the heart of that already-historic city. I use the verb “experience” here in its most explicit and literate sense, because – and especially for a veteran – this is not a typical museum where one gathers a glimpse of works of art or a passing view of some piece of culture. This is where one goes to take part in a gut-wrenching and mind-bending look at a part of our national anatomy so intrinsic to our sense of identity as a twentieth century people that it is both life-changing and indelible.
It is possible that my personal outlook on all this is colored by the fact that I lived through the times so graphically portrayed here, and that I was a participant on the battlegrounds of another war which I see as an interconnected aftermath of what we file away as “World War II”. It is also true that veterans of any of our country’s wars is likely to be more profoundly affected by what is experienced here than any other visitor; and I hasten to add that nowhere will a veteran feel more welcomed and more at home than at this corner of history on Andrew Higgins Blvd. and Magazine street in New Orleans.
Commenced as the “D-Day Museum” on June 6, 2000 thanks to the efforts of the late author/historian Stephen Ambrose whose home was there and who recognized the fact that the “Higgins boats” – the landing craft which were built there in the tens of thousands, and whose genius led to victories around the world were born there - made it the perfect location. The emphasis on the Normandy campaign is still alive and well at the museum, but as the capacity for growth expanded, so too did the vision of the museum’s founders so that today, every facet of WWII from its battlefields to the “Home Front”, from its music to its headlines are brought alive by exhibits and interactive displays.
Without any question, the centerpiece of the museum experience, (and the point at which I think every patron’s visit should begin), is the Tom Hanks 4D masterpiece “Beyond All Boundaries”, a one hour film experience which plays in the “Solomon Victory Theater” at intervals throughout the day. The “recreation” of the D-Day landings and other climactic events of WWII which take place there are dramatically enhanced, not only by sound effects which surround the audience, but sudden bursts of lighting to accompany gun fire and an underground system which shakes the seats of patrons to simulate battle experience. In the course of viewing winter conditions which accompanied the Battle of the Bulge sequence, “snowflakes” actually fall from dark storm clouds onto the audience in the front of the theater.
Another worthwhile experience is the final mission of the USS Tang (SS 306), an interactive recreation of the last sea patrol of the most famous American submarine of WWII, in which the participants – limited to no more than 27 – actually man the sub’s duty stations in the ship’s interior as the action plays out. I filled the assignment of StM1c Ralph F. Adams, age 19 from Camden, N.J. as a torpedo man at station No. 5, where I actually pushed the button launching several “fish”. (The Tang was the only U.S. WWII Sub. from which a small handful of men managed to survive a sinking by ejecting from the bottomed boat.) I do not recommend this experience for all museum patrons.
While most reviewers recommend you plan a 3-4 hour visit, my son and I spent eight hours in our effort to visit and absorb as much of the museum’s sights and sounds as possible, paying special attention to the recorded voices of the real people whose individual stories can be heard by the pushing of a digital button beneath the photo display. Best of all, we had the chance to sit down with a living veteran of the Pacific campaign where we were able to listen to his story and ask the questions they inspired; and to feel of his heartfelt devotion to his country and the comrades now gone but still alive in his untarnished memory.
Even better, I rejoice in having a son whose generosity made this trip a reality for me.
Conceived and built by Andrew Higgins of New Orleans, the so-called “Higgins Boats” or LCVTs as pictured here in the WWII Museum were described by Pres. Dwight Eisenhower as having “won the war for us!” More than 12,500 of these craft carried our men ashore at Normandy and across the beaches of the Pacific.
A B-17 Flying Fortress hangs from the ceiling at the WWII museum where it can be examined from three viewing levels in the main building.
Chris Cooper touches a chunk of Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall”, one small piece of a thousand-mile long “impenetrable” phalanx of fortifications the Allies broached at high cost.
Al Cooper Photos