National WWII Museum in New Orleans provides immersive experience
Posted October 18, 2016
NEW ORLEANS — The National WWII Museum in New Orleans is a multibuilding behemoth that provides an immersive experience for visitors. And it all began with an offhand comment during an interview between historian Stephen Ambrose and former President Dwight Eisenhower.
When Ambrose told Eisenhower he was from New Orleans, Ike brought up the name of Andrew Jackson Higgins and said, “You know he (Higgins) is the man who won the war for us." Indeed, it was Hitler himself who referred to Higgins as "the new Noah."
Higgins, a beefy scotch drinker, had been earning a modest living building boats for oil men and trappers sailing the shallow waters of the Louisiana bayous. Utilizing the concept of Yankee ingenuity (perhaps not the best term to pay tribute to a Southern-bred hero) to the fullest, Higgins directed his energies toward the war effort. It was here in New Orleans that Higgins used his skills to design prototype landing craft: boats with flat bottoms and ramps that could ease onto a beach, then quickly turn around and load more men. These are the boats that made it possible to do what had been previously seen as impossible: to attack a heavily defended coastline from the sea. Higgins' boats were used in nearly every amphibious landing in World War II.
Because of the connection to Higgins, it was decided that New Orleans was the ideal setting for a new National D-Day Museum, which opened June 6, 2000, in an old warehouse. The museum expanded rapidly to the point where it soon covered D-days, or amphibious invasions, in the Pacific theater as well. Within a decade, the museum had swallowed up five buildings and had a bigger purpose: to interpret the entire war, mainly from an American perspective.
With the new raison d’etre came the latest in museum technology. In the earliest edition of the museum, visitors stood in front of life-sized dioramas, such as one re-creating the June 6, 1944, crash of a glider among the brush, woods and stone fences of the Normandy countryside.
Today, when visitors explore the story of a place such as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, they don’t merely look at a re-creation of a tropical jungle; they walk through one, under a canopy of ersatz palm trees, alongside thick faux vegetation. Along the ground is a sniper’s nest where a tubular .30 caliber water-cooled machine gun and water chest are tucked in a camouflage of greenery.
Your trip back in time begins with the same steps a soldier would have taken before being sent overseas. Board a reproduction rail car where you will be surrounded by the sights and sounds of wartime goodbyes. Through vintage video shown in the rail car windows, you will see real-life images of soldiers heading off to war. The ride stops and you enter the universe of world war.
The thrust of the museum is divided into two sections. One is the Road to Tokyo; the other is the Road to Berlin. While the Guadalcanal gallery is dominated by a jungle landscape, the North African theater gallery is a re-created Tunisian desert, dirt and rocks, a 1943 jeep and a 105 mm howitzer. In the Battle of the Bulge section, the landscape is winter in the woods of the Ardennes. Flurries dance in the air, the ground is coated in artificial snow and a lonely, old Opel sedan sits camouflaged with branches underneath fir trees. Civilian vehicles like this Opel were typically pressed into German military service due to chronic shortages of military transport.
Every aspect of war life can be experienced, including those beyond the battles, such as propaganda posters, wound tablets and medicine vials, instruments of war from bombers to bazookas, a full-scale briefing room where top brass planned strategies and the period pin-up photos that would have decked barracks walls — they are all here.
Facing mortality in battle might have gotten a GI’s adrenaline moving, but the absence of fighting was also pretty miserable. One interpretive marker details the down times in the Pacific theater. Possible escapes to places such as Australia and New Zealand did exist, but few troops were able to get leave to travel there. The marker reads, “Most found themselves trapped on remote islands in the tedious monotony of miserable, malaria-infested jungles.”
Posted stories highlight the war experiences of individuals, some unknown, some renowned. There is a photo of a thin-faced man with wavy hair and a determined expression alongside the following description: “After enduring a forced march and a long, cramped ride, (he) arrived at Stalag IV-B, one of Germany’s largest POW camps. He was assigned to a POW labor camp in nearby Dresden and was in the city during the devastating Allied air raids on February 13-15, 1945.”
Anyone who has read "Slaughterhouse Five" should who they are referring to. It was Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut, who famously drew on his Dresden experiences in his classic novel of that name.
But Vonnegut was just one of millions, which is emphasized at the museum. Perhaps the museum’s best feature is its approach. While it covers in detail all aspects of the war, one can’t help feeling when they exit the museum that it was all about people; and it is their stories that are related here.
For emphasis, visitors are given souvenir dog tags with the name of an actual man or woman who played a role in the war. Kiosks placed throughout the museum let them keep track of that individual’s war experiences. We were given Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who went on to help raise the American flag on Iwo Jima.
You might get one of many others, such as Rosemarie Weber, who spent three years of her childhood in a POW camp in the Philippines; Italian-American and Guadalcanal hero John Basilone; or Harold Ward, an African-American who wanted to fight but due to systemized racism was limited to work as a steward’s mate. Visitors can select a war hero who interests them or allow the computerized dog tag system to choose one.
If you go …
What: The National WWII Museum
Where: 945 Magazine Street, New Orleans
When: Open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., except for Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas
How much: General admission is $26 for the museum and $36 for the museum, the movie and the submarine experience. Rates for those 65 and over are $22.50 and $32.50. Admission for students and veterans is $16.50 and $26.50.
Note: There are two attractions in addition to the actual museum open to visitors for an extra charge. One is a 4-D video presentation titled, "Beyond All Boundaries." The other is “Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience,” an interactive look at the final voyage of the war’s most successful submarine.
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received an MFA in professional writing from the University of Southern California in 1977. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at email@example.com.