Thursday, September 12, 2013

The National World War II Museum.

This museum dedicated to the Second World War is without doubt one of the best I have ever seen and I have visited hundreds of museums. Opened on June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of D-Day, the museum which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute focuses on the contribution made by the United States to the victory in Europe, the Invasion of Normandy and the Allied strategy in the east which culminated with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The museum originally opened as the much smaller National D-Day Museum, focusing on the amphibious invasions of Normandy and the Pacific As the Higgins Boats which were vital to the D-Day success were designed, built, and tested in New Orleans by Higgins Industries, the city was the natural home for such a project. Also, New Orleans was the home of historian Stephen Ambrose, who spearheaded the effort to build the museum. Now, thanks in part to a $15 million dollar donation from Boeing Corporation and a $20 million dollar grant from the Department of Defense, the museum is in the middle of a $300 million capital expansion campaign called The Road to Victory: A Vision for Future Generations. The entire project won’t be completed until 2015 and as we moved between buildings, at times we had to cut through construction areas. After purchasing our tickets, our first stop was the Solomon Victory Theater to see the 4D movie “Beyond All Boundaries”. Produced and narrated by Tom Hanks, the 4-D technique engages all of your senses with digital effects, life-sized props, animation and atmospherics as well as film and sound, but it is not all glitz. The movie reveals the huge human loss with quotes and photos while incorporating vintage black and white film footage. From the comfort of the armchairs thanks to technology, we could feel the tanks rumbling across North Africa's deserts, brush snow from our faces during the wintery Battle of the Bulge and flinch as anti-aircraft fire tries to bring down the enemy aircraft. The first-person accounts from letters written in the trenches to home, read by Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Gary Sinise, Patricia Clarkson, Wendell Pierce and lots of other actors are poignant and heart wrenching. Leaving the theater there were many people myself included wiping away tears. I needed a break so we stopped off at the Stage Door Canteen for a beer before heading to the next pavilion. If you love old Hollywood, there is a special display here of Bob Hope which tells the story of his passion to entertain the troops. How he could be funny in the midst of some of the most tragic days of our history is unbelievable. Besides Bob Hope, there were some great photographs of other Hollywood legends that made trips to entertain the military often at great personal risk. All the while there is the music and songs of the war years sung by The Victory Belles. After that break, it was on to the newest building. Opened in January, the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center is a huge atrium, several stories high with two multi level sections and numerous catwalks. We have tickets for “Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience” and the next voyage is about to start. Before boarding the submarine, we are all given a “watch bill” representing a specific Tang crewmember and after boarding, we are shown to our station and enlisted with certain tasks of running the submarine or firing its weapons. The date is 25th October 1944 and this is the USS Tang’s fifth (and final) war patrol in the Pacific. In any other context this would classify as one of the cheesiest things I have ever participated in. However, in re-enacting this last, epic battle I feel a deep appreciation of the bravery of those men who served in the confined space of submarine warfare and at the end of the experience, we are confronted with a wall with the names of those on board. By matching up our watch name, we find out if we were one of those lost at sea or became a POW. Entering the atrium, the collection of aircraft includes a B-17E Flying Fortress bomber, a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a SBD-3 Dauntless, an Avenger, a P-51D Mustang and a Corsair F4U-4, all restored to their wartime glory. These were not models or replicas, but real WWII planes suspended from the ceiling. The B-17E is the airplane dubbed My Gal Sal, famous for having been lost in a mission over Greenland and recovered 53 years later. Walking between the levels and along the catwalks, we can see the planes from top and bottom and every vantage point in between. On the ground floor, the vehicle of war exhibit also displays a restored jeep, Sherman tank and an ambulance. On a vast, 31-foot HD video wall is a montage of rare archival footage showing the iconic American arsenal at war. The Service & Sacrifice experience honoring American patriots who have dedicated their lives in times of war and peace is introduced by the late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, himself a World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient. The interactive touch screen exhibits the profiles of World War II veterans who went on to serve as Presidents, Vice Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, Senators and Representatives. Another thought provoking interactive exhibit is titled “What Would You Do?” and presents difficult decisions faced by real people during World War II. Put yourself in their shoes with the thought-provoking scenarios that hold strategic, moral and ethical significance and you realize nothing is black and white. The final part of our visit was to the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion which houses the museum's reproduction of the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel) or Higgins boat that carried thousands of Allied soldiers to the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. It was reproduced from original WWII plans by more than 100 volunteers, many of whom were former employees of A.J. Higgins, Inc., the New Orleans-based shipbuilding company. The interactive visual display panels detailing the schedule leading up to D-Day and the events as they occurred that day are incredible. The mission of the museum focuses on the remembrance and celebration of the American spirit; the courage and sacrifice of the men and women who served during World War II and many of the volunteers here are veterans who are informative and take their time to help you make the most of the visit. The displays allow you to walk through history, examining the European events vs. the drama of the Pacific. If you never understood the Normandy invasion, the visuals will help you put the pieces together. I came away grateful to Mr. Solomon for creating such a memorable museum. To all who served and continue to serve; thank you, thank you, thank you. Truly one of the best museums I have ever gone through. And I understand why some people still save every scrap of aluminum foil.

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