National D-Day Museum recalls the sacrifices and courage of Americans during World War II
By Lionel Kramer
It was that same spirit, teamwork and courage that Americans displayed five decades ago during World War II when valiant soldiers and unshrinking citizens pulled together to defend democracy. Their storydramatically told at the National D-Day Museum in New Orleansis one of inspiration for a shaken nation.
Since its official opening on June 6, 2000, this tribute to Americas Greatest Generation has been drawing visitors of all ages from throughout the world. In its first year, the museum attracted more than 340,000 visitors.
Stephen Ambrose, author, historian and museum founder, said the purpose of the center is to honor those who served our country on the battlefield and the home front during World War II.
Young and old will come to learn of their proud heritage, he said. Since 1945, democracy and freedom have been on the march. But visitors will learn not just of what we have done. They will learn of what we can do. They will learn that we are still in this together.
Located in New Orleans warehouse district, nine blocks from the French Quarter, the museum tells the story of U.S. involvement in World War II. Beginning with events leading to Americas entry into the war and concluding with the massive Operation Overlord invasion of Normandy by Allied troops on June 6, 1944.
To tell its riveting story, the museum uses a variety of techniques, including the documentary film D-Day Remembered; four interactive galleries with dioramas, electronic maps, photo murals and text panels; nine oral history stations; aircraft and vehicles used in the invasion; and artifacts donated by veterans and their families.
To explain why he chose New Orleans as the site for a World War II museum, Ambrose tells the story of Andrew Higgins who designed and built, in New Orleans, the landing crafts that were used to land on the beaches at Normandy. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once called Higgins the man who won the war for us.
Ambrose realized that Higgins had never received much acclaim, and he set out to honor his contributions. Indeed as you enter the museum, you see a reproduction of the boat designed by Higgins.
The museums first exhibit reveals a dramatic visual display showing the imbalance of military power that existed between the United States, Japan and Germany in the late 1930s. This exhibit contains models of aircraft, warships and soldiers arranged to represent the military might of Japan and Germany, compared to the meager peacetime forces of the U.S.
The America Goes to War exhibit depicts Americas mobilization effort and life on the home front. Photographs, newspapers, recruitment posters, letters, personal mementos and other artifact explain the drafting, training and outfitting of Americas military forces.
The next exhibit, Preparing for the Invasion, deals with the challenges facing Allied commanders as they planned to breach the Atlantic Wall in 1944. A large re-creation of a concrete German command post on the Normandy coast is the centerpiece, featuring viewing slots that give you a panoramic view of the English Channel and the open invasion beaches. And a large cutaway model of an elaborately built concrete bunker lets you see the scale and complexity of the German fortifications.
The Air and Sea Assault exhibit focuses on Operation Neptune, the largest armada in recorded history. It consisted of 5,333 ships and landing craft carrying 175,000 troops across 100 miles of the churning English Channel. A room-sized diorama of the air and sea armada help you understand the enormity of the invasion force.
The Beaches Gallery is the climax of the museums exhibits. From the American soldiers at Omaha and Utah Beaches to the British and Canadian troops on Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches, the gallery conveys the individual sacrifices and experiences of the D-Day combatants. Through personal objects and individual memories, these vivid stories accentuate the drama and importance of the beach battles.
Most moving of all the museums displays are the personal accounts that accompany the exhibits. These eyewitness recollectionsboth oral and printedreally tell the story. Particularly moving are the oral recollections you can listen to in nine small anterooms. Young and old are transfixed as soldiers tell their personal tales of what war is really like.
At the core, the American citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong and they didnt want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed, wrote Ambrose in his book, Citizen Soldier. So they fought and won, and all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful.
Lionel Kramer is Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the AAA-Chicago Motor Club.