National D-Day museum set to open in New Orleans

Tuesday, June 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS - The Big Easy puts away its short, red party dress and scrapes off its heavy makeup for the sober grand opening of the National D-Day Museum on Tuesday.

Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Tom Brokaw are scheduled to provide the star power. Hundreds of aged World War II veterans will be there, too, to remind everyone of the ordinary people behind the remarkable stories of sacrifice enshrined in the museum exhibits.

William B. Fisher, 84, plans to attend the opening ceremony despite his fear of rekindling vivid memories of the carnage on Omaha Beach.

"Just thinking about buddies that are gone and how lucky you are. It gets you down in the dumps," he said. "I try to keep it out of my mind."

Mr. Fisher was a 26-year-old foundry worker in New Orleans when he joined the Navy in 1943. He spent D-Day ferrying equipment from Allied ships to the beaches and transporting German POWs from the beaches to prison ships.

Now, 56 years later - and after 61 years of marriage and two children - he remembers the reasons he went to war and doubts that many younger Americans would understand.

"Everyone was going, and I didn't want to be left behind," he said. "It was patriotism, or something like that."

Dr. Stephen Ambrose, author and historian, began compiling the oral histories of World War II veterans more than 20 years ago. Along the way, he came up with the idea for the D-Day Museum and enlisted help to raise funds.

"Of all the things I've done in my life, this is the one of which I'm proudest. By far," said Dr. Ambrose, who spent a career teaching history and writing best sellers about American presidents and wars.

Simple exhibits

The D-Day Museum's four-story home at 945 Magazine St. sits in a downtown redevelopment area called the Warehouse District. Sandwiched between the gracious Garden District and the raucous French Quarter, the museum building dates to 1856 and once functioned as a brewery.

The main building contains 16,000 square feet of exhibit space. The Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, a 22,500-square-foot addition, honors the state's veterans and civilians who worked on the home front.

Jack Masey, an accomplished designer of exhibits at Ellis Island and other museums, uses the "smaller is better" philosophy to tell the D-Day story. The use of small icons as exhibits - a soldier's bullet-creased helmet, a paratrooper's knife, a canvas belt stuffed with bandages - attracted Dr. Ambrose.

"I had visited lots of military museums and watched people turn away from an entire wall filled with rifles and had already decided that a single M-1 with a damaged stock and a story to go with it would make a much more compelling exhibit," Dr. Ambrose wrote in the current issue of American Heritage magazine.

Visitors can enter a real German pillbox - a machine-gun emplacement - and look through the slits at a vista of the Allied invasion armada floating in the English Channel.

A life-size replica of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's office transports the visitor back to the night before D-Day. A multimedia presentation portrays the Allied command staff's turmoil about whether to call off the invasion because of bad weather.

Just in case D-Day turns into a disaster, Eisenhower scribbles a note taking responsibility and stuffs it in a coat pocket. Thankfully, he never needed to deliver it.

"We try to do more than just show you stuff," said Kenneth R. Hoffman, the museum's director of education. "With the Eisenhower note, we try to teach a lesson about taking personal responsibility for your actions."

Soldiers deliver their recollections about D-Day on television screens scattered throughout the exhibits. Their somber words blend with dark pictures of the invasion.

"The bodies of my buddies were washing ashore and I was the one live body amongst so many of my friends, all of whom were dead, in many cases very seriously blown to pieces," recalled Sgt. Tommy Valence, an

Wealth of facts

A wealth of interesting facts sparkles like gold nuggets among the exhibits. Did you know, for example, that the United States maintained the 18th-largest military force in the world? We ranked just behind Romania, according to the museum.

By far, the most fascinating story surrounding D-Day concerns New Orleans boat builder Andrew Jackson Higgins. During the war, he and his employees designed and produced the flat-bottomed landing craft with a ramp that flops onto the beach.

Generations of Americans have watched movies and documentary footage of the wood and metal boats, raked with enemy gunfire, disgorging troops and equipment onto the beaches. But few people know the story of Mr. Higgins and his waterfront factory in New Orleans.

The military used the so-called Higgins Boats throughout the European and Pacific Theaters in World War II. Gen. Eisenhower called him "the man who won the war for us." Adolph Hitler called him "the new Noah."

When a young Dr. Ambrose discovered the importance of Mr. Higgins in the 1960s, the D-Day Museum was destined to rise in New Orleans.

More than 100 volunteers, many of them former Higgins employees, have constructed a replica of a Higgins Boat for the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion.

Mr. Hoffman, the education director, calls it "the heart of the museum."

Of course, the fact that Dr. Ambrose lives in New Orleans is the second reason for the museum's location. Today, he is considered the museum's "founder."

He and others have coaxed an estimated $25 million out of the Congress, the Louisiana Legislature, various foundations and scores of wealthy people, including Mr. Hanks, Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Brokaw.

At some point, Mr. Ambrose realized that many World War II veterans of Pacific island campaigns were not interested in contributing to a museum that focused exclusively on the Normandy invasion.

"I came to realize that if we wanted them to be involved, we had to include the Pacific landings," he wrote in American Heritage. "That was my best decision."

Thus began a campaign to educate the American public that the term "D-Day" had been used for many operations throughout the war, and not just for the Normandy invasion. Several exhibits memorialize Pacific battles, such as in Tarawa and Iwo Jima.

The strategy worked for Arthur Abramson, 78, a retired New Orleans insurance executive who flew 187 combat missions in the Pacific.

"This is a world-class museum that every veteran can be proud of, regardless of which theater you served in," he said. "It makes me proud as a veteran and as a citizen of New Orleans."

The Department of Veteran Affairs says 6 million World War II veterans are still alive, but an estimated 1,000 of them die each day.

Will Brent, an 82-year-old recovering cancer patient who lives outside New Orleans, hopes to make it to Tuesday's museum opening.

Mr. Brent left his home in Magnolia, Miss., to serve as an Army mortar man. He landed at Normandy on D-Day, earned a Purple Heart for a wounded arm and marched through Europe until the war ended.

When asked what he remembers most about his landing on Omaha Beach, he said, "Trying to dig a foxhole in the sand."

The National D-Day Museum, more than anything, is a tribute to the Will Brents of World War II.

"I wouldn't take nothing for the experience," Mr. Brent said. "But I wouldn't want to do it again, either. I'm just a plain old country boy who got drafted in the Army like millions of others and we had a job to do and we did it."

National D-Day Museum

What: A museum housing a collection of materials, exhibits and personal stories illustrating the United States' role in World War II and celebrating the men and women who helped win the war. Where: 945 Magazine Street in the Warehouse District in downtown New Orleans. Opening: Tuesday (anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy - June 6, 1994). Operation: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and Mardi Gras.

Admission: $7 for adults; $6 for those over 65; $5 for those 5-17.

Highlights: Four interactive galleries profiling America's role in World War II through exhibits; nine oral history stations featuring personal stories; daily showing of D-Day Remembered documentary; reproduction of Higgins landing craft used in one D-Day landing; artifacts donated by veterans and their families; research facilities and materials.

The National D-Day Museum: