By Mary Ann DeSantis . Photography courtesy of Tony & Mary Ann DeSantis
New Orleans may seem like an unlikely venue for the National World War II Museum, but once inside you will think you’re in wartime Europe or the South Pacific.
“All aboard,” the conductor bellowed at the door of a vintage-looking Pullman train car inside the National World War II Museum. I quickly grabbed a digital dog tag and headed to join the line. Missing the train in 1941 could have resulted in a court-martial. Today, it means passing up an interactive journey through history as a narrator describes scenes that new recruits experienced when they left home to fight in foreign lands… and what they felt.
Once the train was “moving,” I learned a few brief facts about the serviceman whose dog tag I received. Doris “Dorie” Miller from Waco, Texas, was a Messman Third Class in the U. S. Navy. He was also the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross, the third highest honor awarded by the Navy at the time. It was my duty to follow him throughout the museum’s interactive kiosks to learn what happened to him. Did he survive the war and return home? Or was he one of the more than 400,000 killed serving his country? Only at the end of the day did I learn his fate.
Open since June 6, 2000, the National WWII Museum in New Orleans covers six acres in the city’s Central Business District. Founded by the late historian and author Stephen Ambrose, the museum was originally known as the National D-Day Museum. In 2003, Congress officially designated it as America’s National WWII Museum.
Today, five state-of-the-art pavilions contain more than 100,000 artifacts that tell the story of “the war that changed the world.” Hundreds of photos and exhibits help visitors understand why and how the war was fought and what it means today.
Why New Orleans?
Ambrose, a University of New Orleans professor, spent decades researching and writing about the war. After collecting more than 2,000 oral histories from veterans, he realized the U.S. had no museum on the homefront to honor them. He also knew New Orleans had been home to Higgins Industries, a small boat company owned by entrepreneur Andrew Jackson Higgins, who originally built boats designed to operate in Louisiana’s shallow bayous. Higgins modified his design to produce a unique collection of amphibious boats, which became known in the war as Higgins boats. Without those boats, war strategy would have been different, General – and later President – Dwight D. Eisenhower said.
Planning your visit
The National WWII Museum is so large and the exhibits so compelling you’ll need more than a couple of hours, especially if you plan to see the films and enjoy the excellent on-site restaurants. A second-day pass is available for $6 when you buy a regular admission ($26, adults; $22.50, seniors; and $16.50, students and active military). World War II veterans always get in free.
Buy tickets online (nationalww2museum.org/visit) to be assured of getting a ticket for the highly recommended “Beyond All Boundaries” 4D film, produced and narrated by actor Tom Hanks. Screenings in the Solomon Victory Theater are hourly but advance tickets are recommended, especially for early showings. The extra $5 for the 45-minute film is worth the price.
Start your day at the museum’s 1940s-era Soda Shop on the Magazine Street side, where you can build your own biscuit for breakfast. The towering creation certainly will last you most of the day, or until you can grab authentic seafood gumbo at the American Sector restaurant next door to the Solomon Victory Theater.
The Campaigns of Courage Pavilion across Andrew Higgins Drive is the heart of the museum and where visitors spend the most time. The Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries recreates the drama, sacrifices, and personal stories of the U.S. campaign to defeat the Axis powers. Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries opened in late 2015 and is a chronological journey of the war in the Pacific, where American troops faced overwhelming obstacles.
Dog tag stations are located throughout the galleries, and in the Road to Tokyo galleries I was able to follow the whereabouts of Petty Officer Miller. He survived Pearl Harbor and was a hero for grabbing a .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun and firing until he ran out of ammunition. He then helped carry injured soldiers through oil and water to safety. He became an iconic figure for African-American soldiers during the war. Unfortunately, his luck ran out. Two years after Pearl Harbor, Miller was killed in action when the USS Liscome Bay was hit by a Japanese submarine during the Battle of Makin.
Miller’s story – as do thousands of others – live on in the National World War II Museum. Their sacrifices will never be forgotten.