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Gary Borders: National WWII Museum in New Orleans keeps history alive

Gary Borders

A gray-haired man stands inside the entrance to the U.S. Freedom Pavilion of the National World War II Museum, located on the corner of Magazine Street and Andrews Higgins Boulevard, in the Warehouse District of New Orleans.

The man at the museum is clearly a veteran, judging from the ballcap he wears identifying his military outfit. He is a volunteer here, and I thank him for his service, as I wait for my wife and daughter to join me.

The museum opened in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum and was renamed three years later. It is in large part the brainchild of historian Stephen Ambrose, author of “Band of Brothers.” It has become one of New Orleans’ most popular tourist destinations. A display explains how the National World War II Museum came to be in New Orleans, better known for great music and food, Mardi Gras and the decadence of Bourbon Street.

The reason stems back to Andrew Higgins, of the aforementioned boulevard. He was the founder of a shipbuilding company bearing his name. During World War II, his company built the “Higgins boats.”  The craft allowed men and equipment to hit land over the bow on a ramp. That saved countless lives compared to using boats that required disembarking over the side. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during the war, said, “Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us.” That is why the National World War II Museum is in the Crescent City.

The museum presently consists of three pavilions. Inside the Kushner Restoration Building, which has glass walls that allow visitors to peer inside, World War II artifacts are being restored. That day, a Higgins PT boat was inside, awaiting restoration. When completed, it will join the many other real-life pieces of military equipment already on display in the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: a B-17 Flying Fortress, a P-51 Mustang fighter plane and an M4 Sherman tank, among others.

The Louisiana Memorial Pavilion has a number of galleries explaining the events leading up to the war, the planning for D-Day and the Pacific campaign. Under construction is a final pavilion, the Liberation Pavilion, that will complete visitor’s journey with exhibits and materials explaining the final months of the war and the postwar years.

One starts the journey by watching a 52-minute film, which begins with a seven-minute preamble narrated by Tom Hanks in an anteroom. The Solomon Victory Theater is a 4-D facility with plush leather seats. That means one watches a 3-D film while at times our seats rumbled as if we were on a battlefield, or shook as if aboard an aircraft. Fake snowflakes descended to simulate a winter scene. What looked like smoke filled the air while buildings and planes burned onscreen.

The film experience alone was worth the ticket price. It is impossible to watch this and not be deeply affected by the sacrifices made by so many, the number of lives lost — 60 million total — the deprivations and destruction foisted upon the world by Germany and Japan.

We spent more than three hours in the museum. Our lives have been enriched by this experience. It is critical that we never forget what happened, from Pearl Harbor to Normandy, Guadalcanal to Buchenwald.

Just more than a million veterans of World War II are still alive, nearly 70 years after VE and VJ Day. They are dying rapidly, nearly 500 a day. In roughly 20 years, there will be no living veterans, according to one estimate. It is vital that their sacrifices and service be preserved for future generations to appreciate. The World War II museum in its short existence has become a national treasure. Put it on your bucket list.

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.
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