I’m one, in nearly two million visitors, who has traveled through The National WWII Museum, located in New Orleans. I can only imagine the emotional impact this museum’s had on each of us, since opening its doors to the public, June 6th, 2000, commemorating D-Day. It’s been designated America’s official World War II museum, by The US Congress.
It is also rated the New Orleans #1 attraction by TripAdvisor. My own deep interest in history and the people who lived it, make my visit an emotional ‘must see, must do’ experience. I recommend a visit to The National WWII Museum to anyone who’ll listen.
Yes, it was that good.
An Emotional Start
It starts with a ticket and my seat on a train. The conductor gives me a key fob and I hold it tightly in my hand. I have no idea what to do with it yet. I don’t know anyone seated around me, so I don’t dare ask. Although we’re strangers, we all stare out of the same dirty windows, with the same heartbreak in our eyes, nursing the same longing in our hearts. We don’t want to go. We want to stay home. Even those who think of it as an adventure, feel an unease in leaving.
There’s a sea of people outside, a throng that waves to us from the station platform. We try like Hell to catch a glimpse, to lock eyes with our loved ones. Some of us are lucky enough to get that last ‘Goodbye.’ Most of us keep trying.
Young women stand on tip-toes, blowing kisses to their lovers. Mother’s weep uncontrollably, supported by the strong arms of their husbands, our fathers. They wave to us, hoping we can see them, from inside the rail cars.
Our dads stand stoically, for now. We know they’ll worry later, behind closed doors. They’ll sit over drinks and cigars, listening to the radio. They’ll look for good news, late into the night. Their prayers will be fervent, for our safe return home, alive, not in a pine box.
We watch the red, white and blue of our American flag outside the train windows and then, that’s it. The whistle shrieks, the locomotive emitting short chuffs as it makes its way down the tracks, and we’re off. Ready or not.
This World War II Museum, set in the heart of New Orleans, is beyond realistic. We’re visitors, yes, and even though we sit on a replica of the Union Pacific Train, we can’t help but feel some of what it might have been like for the military, going off to war.
The scene outside the windows at the station, is actual footage from the war, and thus begins our immersive visit to the museum. The key fobs allow us to ‘adopt’ a young man or woman who’s been sent to the front, far away from the safety of hearth and home.
I sweep my fob across a tiny TV screen in front of my seat. Suddenly, I’m looking into the soulful eyes of Abraham J. Baum. He’s a young soldier, who eventually helps break the siege of Bastogne, under the orders of General Patton. If I want, I can follow his personal story, while making my own way through the World War II Museum. Pretty cool idea, and an emotional one, for sure.
When we exit the life-like train used for transporting soldiers and their bags from basic training, onto advanced training, then eventually deployment to war, it’s sobering. We can’t help but wonder how many were brought home alive. Over 44 million rides were provided by the American Railroads, between December 1941 and June of 1945. How many returned, draped in the American flag, carried by comrades, buried with full military honors? The thought weighs heavily.
National WWII Museum Exhibits
It’s not that the raw emotion of each extensive exhibit grows as we move through The Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, The Victory Solomon Theater Pavilion, The U.S. Freedom Pavilion, and The John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion. It’s that the exhibits, stacked one on top of the other, bring overwhelming emotions to the surface.
Many of us stand in the middle of a room, or in front of a display and openly cry. It’s the grief and horror of this ‘war that changed the world,’ the disbelief that it ever could have happened, that human beings could die, or kill, in such terrible ways.
By the time I reach The Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters, I am a mess. It’s put together with so much thought and accuracy. It’s dramatic, exploring ways US soldiers and Allied forces secured our freedoms. The Road to Berlin and The Road to Tokyo are gut-wrenching exhibits.
The experience is unique; snow falling in the forests, with branches of pine trees camouflaging the Opel Sedan – a civilian vehicle forced into use by the Germans during the war. We walk through Bombed- out buildings and read the evil, hateful words of Hitler that have been painted onto stone surfaces.
I’m drawn to a tall, glass case. It holds an ill-used German typewriter. Eventually, it is stolen from the Gestapo, by Marie Louise Levi-Menard. The SS have taken over the teenage girl’s home. Marie, an active member of the French Resistance, steals the typewriter, using it to write and distribute notes and newsletters, thus aiding the movement against Hitler.
Human Cost of War
Emotional words, sent home from soldiers to their moms and sisters, move me. Journals that chronicle their everyday life in the war, written in their own hand, arouse intense feelings. Even the simple sight of pin-up girls, taped to one wall, reminds me of the ‘mundane, every day’ things serviceman must have dreamed about, when they managed to catch some shut-eye.
The first atomic bomb is dropped over Hiroshima, August 6th, 1945. The second bomb falls on Nagasaki, just three days later. We stand with others in this vast room meant to cover the destruction. It’s immeasurable.
The flight log of pilot Paul Tibbets is there. The faded page documents his last mission in WWII. It was dropping “Little Boy” from the Enola Gay bomber. Also on display are leaflets warning the Japanese of what was coming, and examples of actual surrender cards. Many videos play all around us. Not one of us is ashamed to weep.
Children sit or stand in front of the exhibits. I watch as they read historic coverage of these horrors. As a group, they are silent. And, somehow, their silence encourages me. Youngsters aren’t rushing their way through each room of the museum. They aren’t playfully pushing each other or destroying property.
Hope for the Future
I feel that maybe our wars, and the horrendous ways humans shape our world, won’t not be forgotten. I feel that perhaps, these next generations will be smarter, more tolerant and peaceful, that the generations before them.
I’ve always admired the courage and determination of our soldiers, their selflessness in giving, protecting, defending. I marvel at their sacrifices, up to and including death. In their stalwart fight against enemies who want to destroy the world, we’re allowed to live free. I’m eternally grateful to the resistance movement of all men and women, soldiers who stand side by side in hostile territory, fighting for humanity.
The debt to them can never be repaid. World War II Museums like this one can only try to educate, document and show the truth of what they did and what they gave, to keep us safe. And free.
Starting long before a ticket and their seat on a train.
The National WWII Museum is located at 945 Magazine Street, in the central Business District of New Orleans. You can reach the Museum at (504) 528-1944.