The ranks of the Greatest Generation are thinning, as the boys who once liberated Europe and Japan continue to slip from old age into the great beyond. But if you wonder what the war was like for them, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans offers the closest thing to walking in their footsteps.
For some visitors—like me—it’s personal. My maternal grandfather was a medical officer in the North African and Italian campaigns, and he was one of my best childhood friends. He let me and my brothers play “army” wearing his old uniforms. But he rarely spoke about those dark days in the 1940s.
Toward the end of his life, he mentioned to me that, on the voyage across the Atlantic, he and his fellow soldiers had no idea where they were landing. I remember him saying, quietly: “While I was overseas, I thought the war would never end.” He left the rest a mystery.
Many visitors to the National World War II Museum are the children and grandchildren of servicemen who are looking to fill in such blanks. Others visit “as a way to honor veterans,” says museum spokeswoman Kacey Hill. She says the museum’s directors understand that they have been entrusted with something of a sacred mission: telling the epic story of the most destructive war the world has ever known, and of the men who fought it.
The story unfolds through a varied and expanding museum arsenal. It deploys artifacts like authentic Sherman tanks, fighter planes and the New Orleans-made Higgins boats, which enabled the amphibious invasions that won the war. The museum includes permanent displays and revolving exhibits on particular topics or battles. Exhibits feature interactive maps and touch-screen oral histories.
One of the newest features is a 4-D film that is shown on a huge screen in the museum’s Solomon Victory Theater. Produced by Hollywood star Tom Hanks, who was one of the original backers of the museum, the film “Beyond All Boundaries” unfolds on a giant panoramic screen. Special, in-theater effects include “snow” falling as winter sets in on the screen; theater seats that shake and shudder as tanks draw near; and “smoke” that seems to come from airplane engines as they take enemy fire.
“The film is spectacular and immersive,” Hill says. The rapidly growing museum also includes a cabaret called the Stage Door Canteen, which offers 1940s-era live entertainment, and the American Sector restaurant, with award-winning chef John Besh at the helm.