NEW ORLEANS, March 22, 2015—New Orleans is known for Mardi Gras, music, food, drinking, beads and partying. There’s something else that less well known about the Crescent City: the significant role it played in World War II and the museum that tells the story.
The National World War II Museum began in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum. New Orleans was the home of Higgins Industries, which designed and built the landing craft that made D-Day possible. The craft was designed by Andrew Higgins based on boats made for operating in swamps and marshes. More than 20,000 were built.
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The initial building of the museum highlighted the building of the craft, officially known as LCVP (landing craft, vehicles, personnel), and their use on the beaches of Normandy. However, the boats also played a significant role in the island-hopping campaigns of the Pacific theater, and the museum expanded to tell that story as well.
Today the museum has expanded even more and has been designated by Congress as the official WWII museum of the United States, It is on a six-acre campus in downtown New Orleans, where five soaring pavilions house historical exhibits, on-site restoration work, a period dinner theater and restaurants. A capital expansion program includes the construction of two additional pavilions in coming years, cementing the institution as a state-of-the-art educational institution and a premiere destination for travelers from around the world.
The museum has grown to be the No. 1 tourist attraction in New Orleans, the No. 4 top museum in the U.S. and No. 11 in the world.
It accomplished this rating perhaps by being the most interactive, hands-on museum you have ever likely seen. There are full-size and fully-restored vehicles and aircraft—and of course a Higgins boat—and also uniforms and everyday items carried by the armed forces. There are letters and video interviews with veterans, propaganda posters, maps and news stories. The latter are not just the familiar headlines from major newspapers of the time but also stories from local papers.
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Throughout the museum the overall effect is to make the war personal. World War II for America was total war. Virtually everyone was involved in some way. The museum highlights the contributions of Americans at home building the arsenal of democracy. The transformation of the economy from civilian-oriented, Depression-era economy to massive wartime production is a story you never read about in any detail.
As the generation that fought World War II passes into history and Baby Boomers age, fewer and fewer Americans hear first-hand about that time. The museum helps by providing an alternate “time travel” experience whereby you can register a “dog tag” and follow the footsteps of a soldier from D-Day to Berlin.
Then there is the Beyond All Boundaries theater experience narrated by Tom Hanks. It is billed as a 4-D cinematic experience. It is not to be missed.
World War II was a transformational experience for the United States. With a population about one-third the size of today, Americans produced what even today seem like miracles. We defeated global tyranny in a war whose outcome was far from certain. We were able to do it because we were able to name the enemy, we knew the threat and we were willing to do whatever necessary to win. You begin to understand that at a deeper level as you experience this wonderful museum.
Today Americans again face existential threats in global terrorism. Will we, like the Americans of the 1940s, rise to meet the challenge? Time will tell. The World War II museum can give us both example and inspiration.