In 2019 my wife and I celebrated our 50th Wedding Anniversary by taking a riverboat cruise up the Mississippi from New Orleans Louisiana to Memphis Tennessee. Since I’m known as a history nut, I was told to be sure to check out the fantastic World War II Museum while in Memphis. However, after arriving in New Orleans I found that this museum isn’t in Memphis, but rather there in the Crescent City.
One day while walking around New Orleans we met a father and son who had been to the museum. They told us how overwhelming it was, and that it would take days to go through it. Although we didn’t have time on that visit, we vowed to come back.
That return happened in 2021, when our entire purpose for going to New Orleans was to visit the WWII Museum. Coming along with us was a friend who’s also a big World War II enthusiast. We found that it was true what that father had stated in 2019, this museum is truly overwhelming. It took us two days, six hours each day, to just sample what this museum has to offer.
So, here’s a little history of the National World War II Museum, and what you can expect to see when you visit.
Stephen E. Ambrose’s Dream
On June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, The National D-Day Museum opened in the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, just a few blocks off Canal Street in New Orleans. This was the culmination of the visionary hard work of American historian, Stephen E. Ambrose.
Ambrose became intrigued with the story of the allied landings on D-Day while working with the Eisenhower Center when writing his book, the Supreme Commander, the biography of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s war years. Ambrose was moved not so much by the commanders of that invasion, but rather the “citizen soldiers” and all those workers at home, whose sacrifices helped to turn the tide of the war brought about from that invasion. He felt deeply that there needed to be a museum devoted to their sacrifices and hardships that led up to and during the D-Day landings.
Ambrose was joined in his efforts to found a D-Day museum by University of New Orleans professor and fellow historian Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, who would be the museum’s first president and CEO. Soon their efforts were joined by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg who gave large donations, as well as funding from the federal government and the state of Louisiana. In addition, the project also received many smaller contributions that helped to make this dream a reality.
Since it opened in 2000, the museum has expanded; now covering six acres with six buildings and 178,000 square feet of exhibit space. As the museum grew so did its scope. It went far beyond just its original D-Day invasion mission to encompass the entire history of World War II.
In 2003, three years after its initial opening, the United States Congress designated it as America’s National World War II Museum. The National World War II Museum is also a Smithsonian institution-affiliated museum, which is part of the Smithsonian’s outreach program.
We arrived early on our first day, ready to begin our adventure. We crossed Camp Street and walked along Andrew Higgins Drive, named after the founder of Higgins Industries. I’ll tell more about Andrew Higgins and his connection to the museum later in this post.
Andrew Higgins Drive runs between the original National D-Day Museum building and the newer buildings of the expanded National World War II Museum. This area between the buildings is Founders Plaza.
In Founders Plaza are panels that tell the history of the museum, and panels that recognize the museum’s many donors and supporters.
But what catches your attention are the life-size bronze statues located there. There’s one of a group of WWII pilots, one of Anne Frank and one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
We begin our exploration at building one, the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion
Building One: The Louisiana Memorial Pavilion
As I mentioned at the beginning, this building is where it all began in 2000, and it’s here where you’ll purchase your tickets and start your adventure. The price of admission is extremely reasonable for what you get: adults $29.50, seniors 65+ $25.50, and military, students, children k-12th, and the disabled $18.00. Veterans of WWII are free.
Coming into the main entrance you’ll find yourself in a massive open three-story atrium. Suspended above you is a Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the workhorse aircraft which carried paratroopers during the D-Day invasion.
Also on display in the atrium is a replica of a Higgins LCVP, or the “Higgins Boat,” which was the primary D-Day landing craft. The story of this boat and its builder, Higgins Industries, is told near the boat replica in the exhibit, Bayou to Battlefield: Higgins Industries during World War II.
After you’ve bought your tickets, you’re directed to a replica of a 1940s train station platform and railroad passenger car. This is the L.W. “Pete” Kent train car experience. You, as it were with many of those young men and women heading off to war, begin the journey on a train. In the train car experience, you’ll receive a “Dog Tag.” This will be of an actual person, either a service member or a civilian worker. With this Dog Tag, you’ll be able to follow their experiences throughout the war, as you move from one exhibit to another.
Leaving the train, we headed up to the third floor, this is where you’ll find the original exhibit, “The D-Day Invasion of Normandy.”
The D-Day Invasion of Normandy Exhibit
This exhibit covers the entire history of “Operation Overlord,” from its planning to the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, and on to the fighting in the hedgerows, which followed the landings. This story, and of the men who lived it, is told in an in-depth, but easy to follow, presentation of maps, documents, artifacts, and personal accounts.
One of the exhibits that caught my attention dealt with Brigadier General Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt Jr., the son of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. You can read more about his heroic actions in the D-Day landing in my post, Three Stories of Heroes of Normandy.
The Arsenal of Democracy Exhibit.
Our next stop was down on the second level. It is here where the newest permanent exhibit is located, the Herman and George R. Brown’s salute to the home front, The Arsenal of Democracy. This exhibit tells the story of what happened stateside. It addresses many of the issues that faced Americans at home, and where industry, ingenuity, and dedication by millions of Americans took on an epic building of war materials that fueled the Allied victory.
This story is told in the sections: Gathering Storm, A House Divided, America Besieged, America Responds, War Affects Every Home, United But Unequal: I Am An American, Citizens to Warriors, Manufacturing Victory, and the Manhattan Project.
The Louisiana Memorial Pavilion also houses the Joe W. and Dorothy D. Brown Foundation Special Exhibit Gallery. This hall features rotating exhibits of either the museum’s collections or those from leading institutions. During our visit, the exhibit was Infamy: Pearl Harbor Remembered. This exhibit commemorated the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Finishing our tour of building one we crossed over the Horatio Alger Association American Spirit pedestrian bridge to the Solomon Victory Theater.
Building Two: The Solomon Victory Theater
Exiting the pedestrian bridge we found ourselves on the theater’s second level. Here you’ll find the US Merchant Marine Gallery. This exhibit honors those who served our nation in the Merchant Marines. These brave sailors risked their lives crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans delivering essential war materials, while constantly on guard for German U-Boats and Japanese destroyers.
Going down the stairs to the ground level you’ll find the theater’s entrance, and where you purchase tickets for Beyond All Boundaries. There is a $7 admission fee for this short film, but well worth it.
Beyond All Boundaries is a spectacular 4D production produced by Phil Hettema and Tom Hanks (who also narrates) exclusively for the National World War II Museum. This short film uses actual archive footage, documented accounts, dazzling CGI animation, moving props, lighting, sound effects, and a multi-layered projection process. Beyond All Boundaries literally puts the battle for Europe right in your lap. I can safely say, nothing brings a story more to life than having your theater seat vibrating with each bomb blast, seeing and feeling the snow falling during the Battle of the Bulge, or having a B-17 flying right at you.
Beyond All Boundaries is shown on the hour daily, from 10 am, with the last showing at 4 pm. After our first full day, we were able to just catch that day’s last showing.
Today we entered by the Solomon Theater entrance. You can purchase additional day admissions at the same counter you purchased the tickets for Beyond All Boundaries. Special note: keep your original ticket receipt, additional day admissions are only $7.
It was now time to start our second day adventure. We went through a closed-in walkway to building 3, Campaigns of Courage.
Building 3: Campaigns of Courage
One of the major challenges that faced America in WWII is it was fought on two global fronts, in Europe and the Pacific. The stories of these two fronts are told in building three with its two exhibits, Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo. Building three exemplifies the museum’s expanded mission of telling the complete story of World War II, not just D-Day.
We started the day’s adventure at the Road to Berlin exhibit. We did this for personal reasons, both my father and our friend’s father had fought with General George Patton in Europe.
Road to Berlin Exhibit
The sections that make up this exhibit are European/Mediterranean Briefing Room, Desert War-North Africa, Invasion of Sicily, Italian Campaign, Air War, D-Day Theater, Northwestern Europe: Invasion and Liberation, Breaching the German Frontier Bunker, Battle of the Bulge, and Into the German Homeland.
This exhibit gives almost a day-by-day accounting, beginning with how Hitler and Mussolini came into power, and how their actions brought about World War II. The exhibit then lays out the military campaigns beginning in Africa, then Italy, D-Day, and then through Europe to Berlin.
The story of the European campaign is told using vintage newsreels, photographs, artifacts, and firsthand accounts from the men and women who fought there. Also, the museum uses constructed scenes of bunkers, villages, and snow-covered forests; this helps visitors to realize what the terrible conditions were for our soldiers as they fought to defeat Hitler. Again, on a personal note, the section Desert War-North Africa hit home for me. My Uncle Herbert Verderber was killed in action in Tunisia during that campaign.
Finishing Road to Berlin, it was time for us to move from the frozen landscape of Europe to the steaming jungles of the Pacific islands.
Road to Tokyo Exhibit
As with Road to Berlin, the story of our fighting in the Pacific is divided into sections, they are Facing the Rising Sun, Briefing Room: Japanese Onslaught, The New Naval Warfare: First Blood, Guadalcanal: Green Hell, Island Hopping: Footholds Across the Pacific, China-Burma-India: The Pacific War’s Second Front, Philippines: Return to the Philippines, Death at Japan’s Doorstep: First Assault onto Japanese Soil, and Downfall: Endgame Against Japan.
The story of our war in the Pacific is again told using newsreels, photos, captivating multimedia presentations, constructed scenes, and personal accounts. Through these, you go from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the island-by-island fighting, the dropping of the atomic bombs, and finally to Japan’s surrender in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. As with the Road to Berlin, this exhibit immerses you in the struggles that our fighting men and women had to endure as they battled their way across the Pacific.
You’ll learn, that unlike the war in Europe the Pacific fighting was quite different. The battle for the Pacific was fought with the recovered American naval fleet and the airpower delivered by its aircraft carriers. I also learned from this exhibit that America’s first major amphibious landing wasn’t at Normandy, but rather at Guadalcanal. The landings on the islands of Guadalcanal took place on August 7, 1942, while D-Day didn’t happen until June 6, 1944, almost two years later.
I love to read and absorb everything that’s presented in these exhibits. However, so extensive and encompassing that we again found ourselves running out of time. So, finishing as fast as possible, we hurried over to the building we were told not to miss.
Building 5: US Freedom Pavilion, the Boeing Center
The US Freedom Pavilion is the largest building in the museum’s complex, towering a whopping 96 feet over the other buildings. Inside, besides its height, it provides 30,000 square feet of exhibit space. This space is needed for what’s displayed there.
As we entered the building, we were immediately struck by the large number of vintage WWII warplanes suspended there. These make up the Warbirds exhibit.
The Warbirds Exhibit
There above us, as if in flight, are displayed a North American B-25 Mitchell, a Douglas SBD Dauntless, a General Motors TBM Avenger, a Vought F4U Corsair, a North American P-51 Mustang (made famous by the Tuskegee Airmen), and a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress named “My Gal Sal.”
But what’s special about this building is that you’re not anchored to the ground; only able to look up at these historic planes. The Boeing Center features two upper levels, allowing you to get a closer look.
Other Exhibits in the US Freedom Pavilion
Besides the aircraft on display, this building also houses the Laborde Services Gallery, which honors the 16 million servicemen and servicewomen who served in WWII. Also on the ground floor is the interactive “What Would You Do” polling station. In addition, the special attraction, the Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience is also located here. The USS Tang Experience was something that I was looking forward to seeing, but sadly we missed it due to time.
Vehicles of War Exhibit
There was another exhibit that we also missed. Usually displayed on the pavilion’s ground floor is the Vehicles of War exhibit. This exhibit showcased a wide variety of vehicles used in WWII, including tanks. However, we were told that this exhibit was temporarily removed due to construction.
What we would have seen exhibited there would have beena Dodge WC-54 Ambulance, an M3A1 Stuart Tank, a White M-3 Half-Track, a CCKW Hard Top, an LVT4 Landing Vehicle, a Willis Jeep, and an M4 Sherman Tank. We could only imagine what this building must have looked like with the warplanes above and the war vehicles below.
The Boeing Corporation, World War II, and the Museum
This pavilion is also known as the Boeing Center. But the Boeing Corporation’s connection to the US Freedom Pavilion is much more than the $15 million that they donated to help with its construction. During the war, the Boeing Corporation built 98,965 combat aircraft, including the famous B-17 Flying Fortress. Boeing’s production alone constituted almost 28 percent of the total production of aircraft used in WWII.
Again, we had to end our day at the museum due to its closing. And even after two days and twelve hours, we realized we had only scratched the surface of what’s to see and to learn at the National World War II Museum.
Other Buildings of the National World War II Museum
Besides the four buildings that we visited there are other pavilions devoted to the remembrance, preservation and education of World War II.
The Hall of Democracy
The newest pavilion to the museum complex is the Hall of Democracy. This building, unlike the four we visited, isn’t devoted to exhibits, but rather research and distance learning.
The Hall of Democracy’s upper two floors house the massive Madlyn and Paul Hilliard Research Library and state-of-the-art media production studios. These studios are used for the creation of videos, documentaries, and podcasts to help educate students on the history of World War II. In addition, these floors also feature class and meeting rooms.
On the pavilion’s ground floor is the 3,764 square foot Senator John Alario Jr. Special Temporary Exhibit Hall, the museum’s gift shops, the 1940s themed BB’s Stage Door Canteen theater, and the American Sector Restaurant & Bar. Again, on a personal note, we didn’t visit the American Sector Restaurant, but we did have breakfast and lunch at its sister restaurant the Jeri Nims Soda Shop, located in the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion. The food was wonderful, and I feel their gumbo was much better than what I had on Bourbon Street.
The John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion
Ever wonder what it takes to restore and preserve old artifacts? At the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion, you can be the fly on the wall and see how it’s done.
This pavilion is named for WWII history enthusiast and New Orleans native John Kushner, who had donated many of his valuable WWII artifacts to the museum. The building’s glass exterior walls allow you to peek in on the preservationists, as they painstakingly work to restore and preserve priceless WWII artifacts.
The Liberation Pavilion
The Liberation Pavilion, scheduled to open in 2022, will be the last building of the museum complex. Its exhibits will feature the post-war stories of America’s involvement in WWII.
Its topics are to be, the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the struggles of service members as they re-enter back to civilian life, and the Marshall Plan, which helped to rebuild Europe and Japan after the war.
With this post, I’ve tried to share our experiences during our visit in 2021, and I also hope that I answered some questions on what you can expect when you make your visit. But there’s still one question that needs to be answered, why is this museum in New Orleans?
Why New Orleans?
This museum complex is so intensive and extensive that it could easily, and rightly, sit amongst the other grand museums along Washington D. C’s mall. So why is it in New Orleans? The reason for the National World War II Museum being in the City of New Orleans is because of one thing, the Higgins boat.
As I wrote earlier, the original name for this museum was the National D-Day Museum. Its first mission was to tell the story of the June 6, 1944, landing on the beaches of Normandy. One of the most essential crafts during the D-Day landing was the LCVP landing craft, known as the “Higgins Boat.”
This craft was so critical to the success of that invasion, that General Eisenhower would later write,
Andrew Higgins…is the man who won the war for us. …If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach.General Dwight D. Eisenhower
Supreme Allied Commander
Designed by Andrew Higgins, the LCVP “Higgins Boat” landing craft were barge-like plywood boats, designed with the same shallow-draft as those boats used on the swamps around New Orleans. It was in New Orleans where Andrew Higgins lived and founded his Higgins Industries. And it was at the Higgins New Orleans factory where those LCVP boats used on D-Day were built. So, having the museum devoted to D-Day and World War II located there was very logical.
You Better Plan on a Week
Even after spending two full days at the museum, it felt like we’d only had a taste of what was presented there. So, my suggestion, if you’re a true WWII historian, then plan at least a week for your visit.
The National World War II Museum is located at 945 Magazine Street, New Orleans, Louisiana. The museum’s phone number is 504-528-1944, and its website is www.nationalww2museum.org.
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