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Posted on Jun 26, 2009 in War College

Veterans Observe D-Day Anniversary at National World War II Museum

By Jay Wertz

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A halftrack parked outside the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Jay Wertz.

The Greatest Generation gathered this month at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans on the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy, France — the event that changed the direction of the war and started a steady drive that would ultimately force the Third Reich into surrender. The moniker “Greatest Generation” comes from National WWII Museum supporter Tom Brokaw’s outstanding book on the American generation that fought the war. More than 200 of those veterans were in attendance, many with spouses and family members, to greet fellow veterans, participate in special activities and explore the museum with their loved ones.

A large attentive audience observed the museum’s ceremony to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Normandy invasion on June 6. Among the dignitaries speaking was outgoing Board of Trustees chair Pete Wilson, former governor of California. In the audience were the widow of Stephen E. Ambrose, the celebrated author whose idea and energy led to the founding of this museum on D-Day nine years ago, and the last surviving daughter of Andrew J. Higgins, the Crescent City boat builder whose landing craft and other wartime vessels were crucial to Allied victories.

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The museum unveiled a new special exhibit – June 1944: One Month in the War that Changed the World – as part of the weekend’s activities. In addition, museum staff and volunteers, in authentic uniforms representing American, German, British and Free French military personnel, gave first-person reports, equipment orientations and weapon blank-firing demonstrations. A display of tanks, artillery and encampments stood on the grounds of the museum’s soon to be opened second building and period “canteen” food was served up for anyone to try. The American Belles, a three woman signing group in colorful uniforms reminiscent of the Andrews sisters, performed World War II and patriotic songs for the crowd. There was a panel discussion in which the audience heard and questioned veterans about significant campaigns in June 1944 as well as special activities for the museum’s youngest visitors.

Tommy Lofton, historian/curator for the museum, spent the weekend recording oral histories of veterans (who all traveled to the event at their own expense) and giving a first person map presentation to visitors in the role of an 82nd Airborne Division officer. He assessed the weekend’s impact on veterans, reenactors and visitors. “To see so many veterans and their families in this museum going through the exhibits and telling their grandkids for example how they handled a weapon or showing them where they fought on a map has been a moving experience. Having the reenactors here this weekend has helped open up some of the veterans—to have a physical person standing there wearing the uniforms and holding the same equipment. And the reenactors in turn have gained a lot of knowledge and even more respect for these veterans. I found a lot of people who didn’t really know what to expect this weekend and have been moved by the number of veterans and by hearing them sit down together and share stories about the same battlefield.”

The highlight of the weekend was the role call of veterans entitled A Gathering of the Greatest Generation in which veterans, representing their home states or other states by proxy, stood to be recognized while giving the state’s number of enlisted, killed and surviving veterans. This ceremony and other touching moments created an atmosphere of remembrance and reflection on the part of all in attendance for the contributions of these veterans and their fallen and now gone comrades.

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