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National D-Day Museum Opens in New Orleans

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — World War II veterans looked back to 56 years ago and others paused to honor them Tuesday as crowds celebrated the opening of the National D-Day Museum.

Retired Sgt. Charles H. Porbes wore his dress greens and medals. Arnold Smith's reunion baseball cap and ``World War II veteran'' tag were all that marked his military service.

Both came early to the Superdome to watch fellow veterans parade past with a flyover by 54 military planes as the museum officially opened on the 56th anniversary of the invasion to liberate Europe from Nazi terror.

``I got up extra early this morning. Five o'clock,'' said Porbes, who survived three campaigns in New Guinea and one in the Philippines and now lives in eastern New Orleans.

Porbes shared memories of his service with Vietnam veterans Olden Ledet and Jim Breland, who carried a small flag and a sign reading, ``Thanks to World War II veterans.''

``It was so hot in the hold that we slept on deck. They didn't have to blow reveille — they just turned that hose on us,'' Porbes said.

Smith, 79, of Pecola, Okla., said he had five combat stars in the Philippines and got credit for shooting down nine Japanese planes.

At the museum, founder Stephen Ambrose looked tired from several days of events but wore the blazing smile of someone who had seen his dream come true.

``It's just wonderful to see the baby-boomer generation and their children going up to the veterans and thanking them for what they did and to see the veterans discussing the war with them,'' the 64-year-old historian said.

In the front row at the opening were eight Medal of Honor winners, backed by hundreds of dignitaries, elected officials and veterans who paid homage to those who fell.

``We are the heirs of your sacrifice and we can only stand here in awe of your courage,'' Defense Secretary William Cohen said.

Stephen Spielberg, whose movie ``Saving Private Ryan'' added momentum to the drive for the museum, said, ``We stand in front of something I wish existed in every city in this country, something our children must visit and teachers should facilitate from now into forever.''

The mood oscillated between the excitement of the opening, with confetti in the air and bands blaring, and the somber respect for the sacrifice of the thousands of Allied soldiers who fought.

The opening of the National D-Day Museum has put the limelight back on World War II veterans. About 10,000 of them gathered here for four days of ceremonies.

``I never got a parade when I came home,'' said Jack Hoffler of Hertford, N.C., who at age 14 was the youngest U.S. Navy combat sailor in the invasion. ``I came home on a bus, late at night.''

The museum officially opened Tuesday morning, but all the tickets for the day's events inside were already given out.

Those whose stories have been recounted in books such as Ambrose's ``D-Day'' have found themselves sought after by admirers seeking autographs for their copies. Still more signed commemorative posters.

The opening of the museum was the culmination of a project Ambrose started 15 years ago, when he found the number of artifacts given him by veterans he had interviewed growing too large for a private collection.

It has evolved into a $25 million, 70,500-square-foot showcase of artifacts combined with oral histories, posters, props, video and animation powerful enough to bring to tears numerous veterans who have taken preview tours in recent days.

In addition to Spielberg, the project attracted other celebrities including ``Private Ryan'' star Tom Hanks and NBC's Tom Brokaw, author of the World War II book ``The Greatest Generation.''

One of the main exhibits is a rebuilt landing craft like those used in every beach invasion. They were all built in New Orleans at a shipyard owned by the late Andrew Jackson Higgins.

Another D-Day tribute was held during the Memorial Day weekend in Bedford, Va., where thousands of people watched the unveiling of a portion of the National D-Day Memorial. The tribute is being built in Bedford because the small town lost 19 soldiers during the June 6, 1944, invasion and four more in the following days.

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On the Net:

The National D-Day Museum: http://www.ddaymuseum.org

Military community site: http://www.military.com
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