Digitally, you “become” a soldier in 1941-45 as you enter the World War II Museum in New Orleans when you receive a plastic “dog tag” apropos of the actual metal tags. You use it to board a troop train, then tap at kiosks in the sprawling complex, to collect digital artifacts, on routes 16 million American soldiers traveled.
Congress designated it America’s National World War II museum.
Established in 2000 by local academics Stephen E. Ambrose and Gordon Mueller, the museum hosted 700,000 visitors in 2017. Their mission is “To tell the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world: why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today.”
There is an admission fee.
One could easily spend three to four days exploring the vast campus, which includes: Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters, U.S. Freedom Pavilion, Solomon History Theater Complex, the Merchant Marine Gallery — only a partial listing. The museum has expanded to include a ride on Lake Pontchartrain on a PT-305 boat. There is a stage door canteen featuring “live 1940s era entertainment as a tribute to the venues where so many service members enjoyed a touch of home life while at war.” A gift shop sells clothes of that era. A soda shop features “a nostalgic atmosphere.” A ticket for “Beyond All Boundaries” featuring actor Tom Hanks also is available.
Some visitor guides standing at each exhibit to answer questions are World War II veterans, including a handsome 91-year-old in dapper dress. Several attendees arrived in wheelchairs or walked with canes, a visual reminder that the generation who actually fought in World War II is passing from us.
My most vivid memories of soldiers of the World War II generation are two.
Shortly, after it opened in 2004, I visited the National World War II outdoor memorial in Washington on the National Mall, which honors both soldiers and civilians who served. It is designed as 56 granite pillars around a fountain. I noticed an older man wearing a military cap. Several medals were pinned to the front of his civilian clothes. He was reading some of the inscriptions when I and others approached and held out our hands. “Thank you for your service,” each of us told him. ”I never expected this,” he said. As I left, a long line of admirers formed.
The other time was at a Texas aircraft museum with my former editor who flew World War II bombing missions over Hokkaido, Japan, dodging anti-aircraft fire to land on aircraft carriers at night in stormy pitching seas. At the museum, he sat in the small, transparent bubble gunner’s turret where he had sat decades earlier. Small stature men were recruited for that particularly deadly seat. He became animated describing those scary flights. As we exited, a 1940 song by Ruth Lowe was playing poignantly on the intercom: “I’ll Never Smile Again;” made famous by Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
He stopped suddenly, turning to look again at the historic aircraft — as if a realization yanked him out of his reminiscing. “I just remembered: those (expletives) tried to kill me!”
About 406,000 Americans were killed in World War II; 600,000 wounded, and 5,000 civilians were killed, including Merchant Marine members. Almost 830,00 Texans served, and 22,000 were killed.