The National World War II Museum – A National Treasure
In 2008, the museum broke ground on a $60 million expansion that will add a 71,000 square foot complex.
In early March I had the honor of being invited to lecture at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. For those of you who have never visited there, no trip to New Orleans would be complete without an opportunity to see and experience this national treasure. Located at 945 Magazine Street Drive in the Heart of Arts district of the city, the museum was first opened in June 2000 as the National D-Day Museum.
The idea was the brainchild of the late historian Stephen E. Ambrose, who was a long-time professor at the University of New Orleans. During the early years of the 1980s he began collecting the oral histories of World War II veterans about D-Day and founded the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. What became the National World War II Museum began modestly enough when Ambrose established the National D-Day Museum Foundation in 1991 with the aim of creating a museum that would celebrate the D-Day experience. At first there was little money and years of struggle followed, funds were raised, costs spiraled, mistakes were made and corrected, and volunteers came and went. For Ambrose and those who worked hard to bring about the museum it was a new form of warfare. Supporters had to be recruited and donors persuaded to open their checkbooks.
While the reason it was established in New Orleans had a great deal to do with the fact that Ambrose lived in the area and taught there, of equal importance is that the city was the home of the famed Higgins amphibious landing craft, the creation of New Orleans native, Andrew Jackson Higgins, whose company first manufactured one of World War II’s workhorses.
In 2000 Ambrose wrote in American Heritage magazine of his first meeting with Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower at his farm in Gettysburg, PA.
At the end he said, “I see you live in New Orleans. Did you ever know Andrew Higgins?” “No, sir,” I replied. “He died before I moved to the city.” “That’s too bad,” he said. “You know he is the man who won the war for us.” . . . my jaw dropped . . . Seeing my expression, Eisenhower said, “That’s right. If Andy Higgins had not developed and then built those landing craft, we never could have gone in over an open beach. It would have changed the whole strategy of the war.” He explained that without the landing craft vehicle personnel (LCVP)—a flat-bottomed boat with a ramp that could run right into shore and discharge thirty armed men, turn around, and return to the transport for another load—the Allies would have had to take a French or Belgian port, something that was nearly impossible because the Germans had concentrated their defenses at those ports. Indeed, when the Canadians had tried it in 1942 at Dieppe, they lost an entire division without gaining one inch of continental Europe. (American Heritage, May/June 2000, vol. 51, Issue 3)
As Ambrose notes, “because of Higgins, whose industries had built in New Orleans twenty thousand vessels, the Allies were able to go onto the beaches at Normandy . . . In fact, nearly every American soldier who went ashore in World War II, whether in North Africa or Sicily or Salerno or Normandy or in the Pacific islands, did so in craft designed or built by Higgins in New Orleans. I came away from the meeting determined to do something in New Orleans to honor Higgins. There was no monument to him in the city, no school named after him, no street, nothing.” (Ibid.)
The Higgins boat became the focal point of the proposed museum and the success of his 1994 book D-Day June 6, 1944, led to Ambrose’s involvement in the making of director Stephen Spielberg’s 1998 film, Saving Private Ryan, and HBO’s Band of Brothers. With the support of heavyweights like Spielberg, actor Tom Hanks, the star of Saving Private Ryan, and Tom Brokaw of NBC, the National D-Day Museum was formally dedicated on June 6, 2000, the fifty-sixth anniversary of the Normandy landings in what had formerly been an abandoned brewery. Although the museum was the brainchild of Stephen Ambrose, it is doubtful his vision could have been carried out without the support and initiative of his longtime friend and colleague at the University of New Orleans, Dr. Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, who is now the museum’s CEO. In 2003, Congress designated the National D-Day Museum the nation’s official World War II museum. With this new designation it became the National World War II Museum.
Stephen Ambrose died in 2002, and his goal of creating a modest museum has expanded into something he never in his wildest dreams could have envisioned. Visitors can see exhibits that explore the entire war, its background and the events that led up to it. Among the centerpieces of the museum is one of the famed Higgins boats.
Although it escaped the wrath of Katrina, the museum was closed for three months before re-opening in December 2005 with a banner that proclaimed: “We have returned,” next to the famous photograph of Gen. Douglas MacArthur returning to the Philippines in 1944.
Since then the museum has set in motion both an expanded mission and an ambitious expansion. Under the leadership of Dr. Mueller, in 2008, the museum broke ground on a $60 million expansion that will add a 71,000 square foot complex, housing a 250-seat, state of the art, high-tech Victory Theater and a Stage Door Canteen, a replica of a World War II USO facility. When completed in November 2009 the new complex will feature films, live stage shows and a restaurant. During my visit to the museum we were given a tour of this amazing new complex that will feature an enormous 125-foot screen in the Victory Theater that will embrace a 180-degree arc, showing a combination of photos, animation and graphics. Objects will rise from a thirty-foot pit or down from the ceiling and the viewer will not only see but also experience an interactive 4-D, multi-sensory experience that includes heat, cold, wind, sound and light. Nothing like it currently exists and its designers rank among the most talented and innovative in their field. Also in production is a 39-minute film called “Beyond all Boundaries” produced by Tom Hanks that will relate the experience of World War II through film clips, special effects and readings by Hanks and other top name actors. By 2015, plans call for adding additional pavilions at a cost of some $300 million. For those interested in both the museum and its expansion, the museum has a superb website where you can take a virtual tour of the expansion and experience what the museum has to offer.
According to the website the additional expansion after 2009 will include “four prominent exhibit pavilions which will portray all campaigns of the war on land, sea, and air, and each branch of the U.S. military services.”
Anyone interested in contributing to this worthy project or seeking further information can do so by contacting Alma Jane Shepard, Senior Vice President of Institutional Advancement , 504.527.6012, ext. 250, firstname.lastname@example.org.