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Bringing WWII to Life at a Museum of its Own

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Dr. Gordon “Nick” Mueller, President & CEO of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans presented an important historical venue to the Y’s Men of Westport-Weston on October 20, 2011.

Mueller began by asking a few of the more than 25 Y’s Men WWII veterans to stand and be recognized – Westporters Ray Orr, Neil Croarkin, Stu Bernard, Jim Sweeney, Bruce Allen, Bob Allen, Ted Diamond and Larry Aasen among others.

He encouraged those who haven’t contributed to the museum’s extensive oral history to do so to keep their memories alive for future generations.

We know these men as heroes, but, Mueller said, “these brave men would not regard themselves as heroes, rather Americans doing their duty – the heroes were those who did not make it home.”

Mueller is a retired history professor at the University of New Orleans, who, along with noted author and Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose founded the museum in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum on the university’s campus.

The museum opened and immediately began receiving so many unsolicited artifacts that Mueller and Ambrose determined to expand the project – from a D-Day focus to all of WWII.

Aided by an active board including such luminaries as Tom Hanks, Tom Brokaw, Saints’ quarterback Drew Breese, retired Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, actor Wendell Pierce, and by political leaders including WWII veterans Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, they undertook a $300 million expansion
They have thus far achieved about half their fund raising goal. On the way they have succeeded in creating the largest membership of any non-profit museum in the country.

Mueller presented a video the museum’s development group uses for fund raising showing existing installations and those to be added in the next phase.

He told the group that work on the new areas began in 2004, but was suspended following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The grand opening of the renamed National World War II Museum took place in November, 2009.

When asked “why New Orleans?” Mueller responds the locally built “Higgins Boat,” the essential craft for landing troops on a beach. Before the Higgins Boat the Allies had no way to do the jobs. Once added to the Allied arsenal it facilitated virtually every landing.

They were shallow draft boats capable of running over logs and debris without fouling their propellers and making beach landings. 20,000 were delivered by Higgins Industries, at a peak rate of 700 per month. General Eisenhower called Andrew Higgins “the man who won the war for us… if he had not designed and built those boats, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.”

The museum employs a number of unique ways to present the war to visitors. Entry tickets are dog tags with chips that guide visitors to the exhibits – in the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, a C-47 plane, a Sherman tank, jeeps, artillery pieces and, of course, a Higgins boat.

Moving through the museum, the visitor sees exhibits of the D-Day landings and Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the Pacific theater. The Liberation Pavilion, to be opened in 2012-14, will tell visitors “we have seen war” – a terrible war that killed some 65 million people worldwide.

The Liberation Theater will recall the emotions of GIs who opened the gates of concentration camps, then went on to produce the GI Bill, the Marshall Plan, democratic governments in the defeated countries, and eventually civil rights and atomic energy for peaceful uses.

And visitors can view videos of famous USO show singers, dancers, comedians and movie stars at the Stage Door Canteen and enjoy “generous portions of the most popular staples of American cuisine” at the American Sector restaurant.

To underscore war itself, Mueller read a poem by written Archibald MacLeish in 1941 called “The Young Dead Soldiers,” that emphasized the words: “remember us”.

Mueller’s talk concluded with a video of a Nazi concentration camp survivor movingly recounting its liberation by American soldiers.

One of the museum’s objectives to become a leading repository of knowledge of WWII, and to be an essential resource for its study. Unfortunately, Dr. Mueller noted, from 6th grade through high school only two weeks are allotted by most schools to teaching about WWII.

Those interested in learning more about the National WWII Museum are encouraged to visit its website, at www.nationalww2museum.org.

Since Dr. Mueller’s talk much of the enhancement he talked about has been completed. An article in the New York Times on January 12, 2013 presents the museum as it stands at this writing: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/12/arts/design/national-world-war-ii-museum-in-new-orleans-expands.html.

Roy Fuchs

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