The treasure that is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans

March 9, 2015

The Dog Tag Experience at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans lets you register to follow the story of one person's experience during the war years, stopping at various dog tag stations to dig deeper into the history of a specific time -- and person -- in the war.

In the darkness of the theater, the numbers appear. They come at you, really, daring you to absorb them:

Soviet Union, 24,000,000

China, 20,000,000

Poland, 5,600,000

Japan, 3,100,000

U.S.A., 518,000

Germany, 8,800,000

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.

Visitors get a sobering taste of submarine warfare from the feature "Final Mission: The USS Tang Experience."

"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.

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 individuals, of each person, 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 followed.

That is exactly the mission of the museum, what Stephen Ambrose, the historian and writer, had in mind when he began gathering support for it. Ambrose, a longtime professor of history at the University of New Orleans, wrote not only biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, but historical best-sellers, including "Band of Brothers." When he founded the Eisenhower Center at the university in 1989, its mission was to study the consequences of war. So his first project was collecting oral histories from World War II veterans about their experiences. He collected their words and also thousands of artifacts from veterans as he interviewed them.

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. Ambrose got a lot of heavy hitters to help support the museum — Hanks, Steven Spielberg and state and federal governments. It opened in 2000, and in 2003, Congress designated the museum as "America’s National World War II Museum." Ambrose, however, died in 2002, so he never knew of the extra import that would be given to the museum he founded.

From its one original building, the museum has expanded to three and is planning more. Currently exhibitions are organized in three main pavilions around central themes of the war.

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.

There’s a lot to see in this museum — truly, 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 buying 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 down 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.

The other feature to watch out for at the museum is "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 access additional information about the person you’re following and his or her experiences at that point in 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. I felt bad that I couldn’t stay with him, but I had doomed myself from the outset to run out of time because, well, there are stories everywhere.

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, I learned from the signage, a Higgins Boat, a replica of one 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 men, one sporting military medals, the other with a gray, unruly beard. Behind the man with the medals was a sign: "I was there! Meet Forrest Villarrubia, USMC, WWII veteran. Pacific Theater."

Both men were veterans, willing to answer questions, or welcome other veterans, to the museum. On the table 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, Villarrubia said. He had logged 15,000 hours as a volunteer at the museum.

They didn’t tell me that Blakey had been one of the legions of veterans who had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. It was something you didn’t talk about at the time. Blakey was haunted by what he saw behind enemy lines and was only finally able to drive away the ghosts when he became a volunteer. Sharing his stories. Talking about the war, in all its aspects, helped him come to terms with the past.

After his death, there was a memorial service for Blakey. Gordon "Nick" Muller, president and CEO of the National WWII Museum, gave the closing remarks.

"He gave his spirit and memories to millions of visitors," Muller said. "To all of us in this room, Tom Blakey was the very heart and soul of this museum."

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.




Where: 945 Magazine St., New Orleans. The entrance is on Andrew Higgins Drive. The museum’s parking lot is on Magazine Street and charges $10 for seven hours.

HOURS: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Closed Mardi Gras Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

HOW MUCH: $23; seniors 65-plus, $20; students and military, $14. WWII veterans admitted free.

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.

MORE INFO: 877-813-3329,

ACCESSIBILITY: The museum is fully accessible; a limited number of wheelchairs are provided at no charge. Assisted Listening Devices are available for "Beyond All Boundaries," ask at the visitor services desk in the Solomon Victory Theater. Sign language interpretation is also available for the film, if you email at least 48 hours before your arrival.



Wherever World War II was felt, you can find a way to recall it. There are vast battlefields (throughout Normandy, for instance), and small private homes (Anne Frank House in Amsterdam) and places where soldiers trained (Camp Toccoa, Ga., linked to the "Band of Brothers") and died (Iwo Jima). Here are just a few of the more official museums that you can visit.


Battleship Cove, Fall River, Mass. — Near the Natick museum is the world’s largest exhibition of historic naval ships, with a battleship, destroyer, submarine, PT boats and more. Sleepovers for kids. Open daily.

Battleship New Jersey, Camden — America’s largest and most-decorated battleship is berthed on the Camden waterfront on the Delaware River. Overnights offered. Open daily April 1 to Oct. 31; closed Jan. 1 to Feb. 6, open weekends only the rest of the year — plus special holiday openings. Info:

The Museum of World War II, Natick, Mass. — A privately funded museum 20 minutes from Boston with one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of World War II memorabilia. The museum is, however, small, and visiting is limited to control crowds (and accidents). Reserve ahead for a visit, Tuesday through Saturday, by emailing Info: museumofworld

National Museum of the Pacific War, Fredericksburg, Texas — Dedicated exclusively to telling the story of the Pacific and Asiatic theaters. The 6-acre campus includes a Memorial Courtyard, the Japanese Garden of Peace, the Nimitz Museum, where Adm. Chester Nimitz spent much of his boyhood, and the 33,000-square foot George H.W. Bush Gallery with 900 artifacts, machinery, vehicles and more. Two blocks east of the main campus, the Pacific Combat Zone, a unique 3-acre indoor/outdoor exhibition featuring restored military vehicles and weaponry displayed in replicated docks, entrenchments and beachheads. Combat re-enactments are scheduled throughout the year. Info:

The USS Arizona Memorial, Hawaii — The new $62 million Pearl Harbor Visitor Center at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument features two new world-class museums, as well as outdoor panels and panoramic shoreline views, Also visit the Pacific Aviation Museum, which occupies surviving World War II-era hangars that still bear the scars of the Pearl Harbor attack. See aircraft, like a Japanese Zero, an F4F Wildcat, B-25 Mitchell Bomber, F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle. Veteran docents help bring the time and the history to life. Info:


Imperial War Museum, London — The museum covers conflicts from World War I to the present and has five locations: IWM London; IWM North in Trafford, Greater Manchester; IWM Duxford near Cambridge; the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, London; and the historic ship HMS Belfast, moored in the Pool of London on the Thames. Info:

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum — The museum is within this moving, memorial-filled park. Note that part of the museum is closed for renovation until 2016. Info:




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