In the darkness of the theater, the numbers appear. They come at you, really, daring you to absorb them:
▪ Soviet Union: 24 million
▪ China: 20 million
▪ Poland: 5.6 million
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▪ Japan: 3.1 million
▪ U.S.: 518,000
▪ Germany: 8.8 million
These are the number of dead, by country, in World War II. A total of 65 million, more than all other wars to that point combined.
“Beyond All Boundaries,” the much-praised film that is a centerpiece of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, slaps you into awareness. Awareness of a reality that, as the “Greatest Generation” veterans slip away, we are in danger of forgetting.
Tom Hanks narrates
The movie, narrated by Tom Hanks, its executive producer, is in “4-D.” The 3-D is accomplished without needing those special glasses, and the fourth D reaches into the audience – wind blows, the theater’s seats shake, smoke billows. The movie, like the museum, wants to engage all generations; that’s why you need that extra “D” these days.
Still, as the film proceeds (it takes us through the Pacific Theater and Africa in addition to Hitler’s march through Europe), the actual events upstage any theatrical booms and quakes.
The bigness is difficult to wrap your mind around. But in one section on the brutal Battle of Saipan, when just the center screen is illuminated, with shots of the consequences of war – a woman jumping off a cliff to commit suicide, a GI giving his canteen to a child and a GI holding a tattered Imperial Japan flag amid ruins – there is an image of a shivering Japanese girl, maybe 5, and all alone. It is just a quick image, a blink in the spectrum of this devastation.
But you see her shiver. You can feel it.
Basically, this is what will move you. Individuals. The stories of each one of the ones that make up the 65 million dead – along with those who survived, of course. The stories bridge the gap of time and place. And one hopes they will lead to understanding. Remembering. Incorporating the lessons of war into the minds of generations that follow.
That is exactly the mission of the museum, what Stephen Ambrose, the historian and best-selling author, had in mind when he began gathering support for it. When Ambrose founded the University of New Orleans’ Eisenhower Center in 1989, its mission was to study the consequences of war. So his first project was collecting oral histories from World War II veterans. He collected their words and thousands of artifacts from veterans.
All this formed the foundation of the museum, which he saw as a place that would reflect “his deep regard for our nation’s citizen soldiers, the workers on the home front and the sacrifices and hardships they endured to achieve victory,” according to its president. It opened in 2000, and in 2003, Congress designated the museum as “America’s National World War II Museum.” Ambrose died in 2002, unaware of the extra import that would be given to the museum.
From a single building, the museum has expanded to three and is planning more.
The Louisiana Memorial Pavilion showcases the large artifacts of the war and exhibitions about D-Day, the home front and the Pacific. Here you’ll find the Solomon Victory Theater, which shows “Beyond All Boundaries”; also the Stage Door Canteen, where the music and entertainment of the generation come to life.
The John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion is where staff and volunteers restore artifacts in public view. Make sure you stop by the American Sector Restaurant and Soda Shop – atmospheric and friendly, with old-fashioned tunes and USO photos.
The U.S. Freedom Pavilion, the most recent addition, features exhibitions and interactive experiences that illuminate the story of a country mobilizing for war. At its heart is the Campaigns of Courage section, with its new Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries.
You need at least half a day, or consider breaking up your visit into two days (an extra $6 for second-day admission), so you have time to digest it all. But there are two other special features of the museum (well, at least two) not to miss.
“Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience” requires a supplementary ticket, but it’s worth the $5. You will get an interactive experience of being aboard the most successful submarine in World War II, boarding as it sets off on its fifth (and final) war patrol on Oct. 25, 1944. You’re assigned a workstation in the control room – I never did figure out how to work my various wheels and dials, but it soon didn’t matter. Above us through a glass window, we could see the prow of a Japanese warship and hear the buzzing of alarms and the shouting of instructions. I stood looking up, mouth open, helpless, along with my fellow sub mates – a dad and his son, grandparents and their little girl, a young Asian couple with a little boy – as we began to understand we were under attack. We were gaining an understanding what the “final” in the title of the experience actually meant. I had no idea – as the men on Oct. 25, 1944, had no idea. But for them it was real.
Watch, too, for “Dog Tag Experience,” which allows you to follow one person’s story through the war. When you pay for your ticket, you receive a dog tag that you can then register at a kiosk in the Campaigns of Courage section of the museum. You “follow” a real person in the museum database: Whenever you notice a dog tag station at various points throughout the exhibition, you can learn more about the person you’re following and his or her experiences at that time.
I didn’t have enough time to learn all about my dog-tag person, Augustus Hamilton of the 358th Fighter Group; he enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked.
The moment I entered the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, I was waylaid. After gasping at the enormous planes suspended from the ceiling, I noticed a familiar-looking craft to my left. It was a replica of a Higgins Boat used for the D-Day landing in Normandy. It also explained one reason the museum is in New Orleans: When the military in the late 1930s began developing small boats that could carry troops from ships to open beaches, they eventually discovered Andrew Jackson Higgins of New Orleans, who had been manufacturing shallow-water work boats to support oil and gas exploration in the Louisiana bayous. Higgins adapted his designs for the military’s specifications; he and his 30,000 workers went on to make every landing craft used in the war.
Right next to the Higgins display was a long metal table, and near the far end sat two veterans, willing to answer questions or welcome other veterans to the museum. Beside them was a photo of a man who had just died. I asked them about Thomas Blakey.
Blakey was an Army paratrooper who landed behind enemy lines early on D-Day to capture and hold a bridge to keep Germans from sending reinforcements to Utah Beach. He was 94 when he died, said volunteer Forrest Villarrubia, who served in the Pacific Theater with the U.S. Marines. Blakey had logged 15,000 hours as a museum volunteer.
I thought about 15,000 hours of telling stories. I thought about 94 years of living. I thought about 65 million people dying. I hadn’t even begun to explore the place, but already I was grateful for the opportunity it provided to learn the stories of individuals, as many as I – and the million other visitors – could.
So their memories, and what made them the Greatest Generation, might live on.
What: National World War II Museum
Where: 945 Magazine St., New Orleans.
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Closed Mardi Gras Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Cost: $23; seniors 65-plus, $20; students and military, $14; World War II veterans, free.
Other: Admission to “Beyond All Boundaries” and “The Final Mission” both require an additional $5 entry ticket, and times are reserved. You can also purchase a second-day entry for $6.
A special all-day Behind the Lines tour of the museum includes a visit to parts of the collection not on view to the general public; access to a Sherman Tank; lunch with a museum curator in the private dining rooms at the museum; and more. Limited to 11 guests. Prices from $345 per person or $650 for a couple. Reserve on the website or call 877-813-3329 ext. 257.
Info: 877-813-3329 or nationalww2museum.org