NEW ORLEANS – I was able to visit the National WWII Museum twice in 2021, and because of a handful of new exhibits (and one I missed due to time constraints the first time) which opened between trips to Crescent City, I did not see anything twice.
One thing I saw on my last visit caught my eye, and it wasn’t part of the museum. Walking through the museum’s original exhibit on D-Day, I was behind two young women, both of whom spoke German. As we walked past a video of Adolph Hitler surrounded by Nazi flags, one of the women burst into tears.
Her friend tried to calm her down. It was clear that she was not only moved by the images, but felt guilt and shame for her homeland’s actions during the war.
Truth be told, it’s hard for anyone not to cry a little while browsing the museum, which offers incredibly accurate depictions of the horrors of war. It’s a place anyone who enjoys history – or has WWII ties – should definitely put on their bucket list.
For the rest of us, it’s still an incredibly well-curated exposition of the deadliest conflict in human history. Perhaps a little too graphic for small children, the WWII museum keeps quiet while illustrating the story of how Allied forces stopped aggressors who wanted dictatorship.
The home front
The museum’s newest exhibit, Arsenal of Democracy, begins in the United States before we entered the war. In fact, the exhibition begins at the end of the so-called War to End Wars, World War I, with the Treaty of Versailles and historical events as World War II approaches.
Traveling through time, visitors see how American attitudes changed towards involvement in the war – largely isolationist as Germany began its march to dominance for full support in the wake of Pearl. Harbour.
This section of the museum includes an honest depiction of the inequality America still suffered at that time, from segregation in the military to the internment of Asian Americans. The response of American manufacturers to the needs of the armed forces is also detailed – and the secret Manhattan project, the development of nuclear weapons.
A day of infamy
A temporary exhibition – it is only visible until June – commemorates the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The surprise Japanese attack – undertaken before that country officially declared war on the United States – was the catalyst for our entry into World War II.
The exhibit includes a number of taped testimonials from people speaking about the latest news of the attack and the reaction of ordinary Americans. A moving part of the exhibit follows a friendship that developed between two men involved in the attack, one American and the other Japanese.
The path of war
Separate galleries detail the two theaters of war.
The road to Tokyo “retraces the grueling journey from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay via New Guinea and Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, Burma, the Pacific Islands, China, India and Alaska. The exhibits explore the evolution of strategy against relentless Japanese forces in Asia and the Pacific, examining cultural differences, logistical challenges, and the staggering range of extreme conditions that American military forces faced.(1)
The Road to Berlin “brings to life the drama, sacrifices, personal stories, and strategies of the American campaign to defeat the Axis powers and preserve freedom.”(2)
The Pacific War included atrocities almost as brutal as those inflicted on the Jews by Hitler’s regime – only these were committed against prisoners of war, American and otherwise. The gallery moves from Guadalcanal to the Pacific Islands and eventually to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that led to the Japanese surrender.
The war in Europe also spread, as German forces combined with Italy to form an axis of power that also extended into the deserts of North Africa.
Exhibits include a reproduction of the Siegfried Line, where Germany first stopped Allied forces in their tracks; the Battle of the Bulge, the largest skirmish between German and American forces of the war; and on D-Day, the Allied landings in Normandy which enabled our forces to gain a foothold on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
New Orleans was chosen as the location of this museum because the Allies’ most notable offensive, the Normandy landings, was made possible by the landing craft built here by Higgins Industries. The museum started as a memorial only for D-Day.
The exhibit details the planning for the attack, the discussion – perhaps even the arguments – over whether to move forward as planned as bad weather looms. There was a disagreement between the leaders, but one man had to make a decision: American General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Having apparently deceived the Germans into believing that the landing would be further north, and fearing that holding back the expeditionary force would not only increase the risk of the truth coming out but affect morale, Eisenhower took decision to move forward. He gave lively encouragement to the expeditionary force before the landing:
“You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, towards which we have strived these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of freedom-loving people march with you everywhere.(3)
He states in this message that “We accept nothing less than full Victory!” — maybe a necessity, because there was no Plan B. It was all or nothing, success or failure. Eisenhower had a letter prepared in case he became the latter:
“My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. Troops, air and navy did all bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any rebuke or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.(4)
The museum also pays homage to merchant marines, civilian forces that risked the submarine-infested waters of the North Atlantic to deliver needed goods to Europe. An interactive feature revisits the final mission of the USS Tang, one of many American submarines that protected merchant shipping.
Tang was the most successful submarine in terms of German tonnage sunk. “Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience” recreates the ship’s last mission on October 25, 1944.
The Liberty Pavilion includes exhibits of aircraft and other war vehicles, as well as another interactive exhibit, “What would you do?,” which presents the difficult decisions that ordinary people had to make during the war.
The presentation of the museum is a 4D movie, “Beyond all borders” narrated by producer Tom Hanks and offering first-person accounts of the trenches.
Admission to the National WWII Museum is $36.50 for adults (including the movie; $29.50 without), with discounts offered to seniors, students, and military (including veterans and spouses). Children under 5 and WWII veterans are admitted free. A second day pass is also available at a reduced price.
Other offerings at additional cost included daily guided tours, performances at the museum’s Stage Door canteen, and the Tang exhibit.
Visit the museum online at www.nationalww2museum.org.
1. National WWII Museum website, accessed 1/18/22.
3. National Archives and Records Administration of the United States