Written by Francine Paino
New Orleans is known for many things. It is a city of magic, mystery and a creole culture. New Orleans offers fabulous Cajun food, jazz and traditions born of hundreds of years of French, Spanish and American influences melding to create one of the most exciting cities in the U.S.
February marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras culture of masks, beads, and jazz music on every corner and in the streets, and the closer it gets to Fat Tuesday, the more frenzied the partying becomes.
Somewhat out of character in this atmosphere, however, New Orleans has a very sobering institution. Surrounded by the city’s distinctive and ornate French architecture, surrounded by the mysterious atmosphere, and surrounded by celebrations and festivities, stands a stately monument.
Flying the Stars and Stripes, high above its roof, is the National World War II Museum. Visitors who take time off from the city’s fun events to come here experience the sacrifices made by so many in defense of other nations, as well as our own.
A 2017 TripAdvisor rated the World War II Museum the number one attraction in New Orleans, and number two in the world. Again, in 2018, it was rated one of the top ten museums in the world.
Well planned, the museum’s design provides immersive exhibits, multimedia experiences, and a vast collection of artifacts. Spanning the nation’s pre-war domestic manufacturing, preparation to enter the war, and its industrial efforts on the home front once the U.S. entered the conflict, the exhibits pay attention to the women on the home front who took over the industrial work when the men were sent overseas.
Upon entering the museum, one looks up to see a C- 47 transport plane suspended on cables. The C-47 carried many of the young men sent to fight and die in Europe and Southeast Asia. Beneath this plane is a Nazi anti-aircraft gun, the type used to shoot down the C-47s, and alongside the gun is an Andrew Higgins landing craft.
Throughout the museum, there are displays of weapons, the soldiers’ back packs, communication equipment, and first-person oral histories, as well as unique immersive exhibits—all included in the admission price. One interactive exhibit is The Dog Tag Experience, which encourages visitors to choose a soldier from the kiosk of registered combatants and follow him through the war.
For those who prefer to go from exhibit to exhibit on their own, the displays are labeled and arranged to move the viewer from event to event, but also included in the admission price are guided tours.
These guides are well versed in the areas they cover, and they provide the details and connective tissue that turn specific events into full histories.
Then there is the 4D movie. Shown on a panoramic screen, and narrated by Tom Hanks, Beyond All Boundaries covers the epic story of WW II. The film is a very intense experience and not recommended for young children.
Although there are many stories of inspiration and courage, all war is hell, as is clearly shown here. No one sane wants it, but in the words of the first president of the United States, in his first annual address to Congress, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” (George Washington, January 8, 1790) To that point, there is an exhibit board displaying how unprepared the U.S. was in 1941. Japan had 1,700,000 men in uniform, Germany had 3,180,000, and the U.S. had 335,000.
In a separate pavilion, connected by an indoor bridge are two roads. Each one occupies a full floor. One takes the visitor on the combat road to Berlin, starting with the battles in North Africa, and the other, on the road to Tokyo, weaves in and out of the island fights in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
New Orleans was selected for the museum because it is the city in which Andrew Higgins built the landing craft used in the amphibious invasions. As the Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower believed the landing craft was one of the five essential inventions that helped win the war. New Orleans is better known, however, for its free spirit, fun, food, music, multicultural events, and Mardi Gras festival. Having the museum here is a solemn reminder that the freedoms and celebrations we enjoy carry a hefty price tag.
The men and women who paid the price in the mid-twentieth century are almost gone. One day soon, all that will be left to tell future generations what happened to the world between 1932 and 1945 are these stories of the citizen soldiers, the men and women who fought the battles in Europe and the Pacific, and the odds they faced. Their records, personal oral histories, and photographs taken by military photographers in real-time ensure that they will be remembered forever.
The World War II museum is comprehensive, and it is not possible to see and experience everything it has to offer in one day. Nonetheless, any amount of time spent there is worth the price of admission.