The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is worth the trip to the Big Easy. The beignets, muffalettas, and poboys are just lagniappe. This spring break, I took my children as part of a continuing endeavor to instill in them gratitude for the people who came before us and sacrificed greatly for the liberty we now take for granted.
There are numerous great things about this museum. It has a heavy dose of high-tech, touchable computer exhibits where you can learn about famous battles, Medal of Honor recipients, and vehicles of all types. My kids really enjoyed this (we spent about six hours in the Museum). The interactive nature appealed to their 21st century learning styles, and it made each exhibit more personal. One great exhibit was a large screen that posed strategic dilemmas that Allied leaders faced: Do we bomb military sites near civilian areas? Should Japanese-Americans be allowed to enlist? Should we drop “the bomb?” Then audience members are asked to make a decision using a mounted Ipad in the staging area. A giant screen shows the results for the day and the week based on how participants voted. This exercise actually spurred a conversation with my daughter about the use of the Atomic Bomb, the ethics of war, and the hard decisions that presidents make in war-time.
There is a very moving multi-media “4D” movie that provides a good orientation to the War. It’s billed as “4D” because it utilizes some of the tricks that Disney uses in its 4D film experiences – smell, falling snow, rumbling seats, flashing lights, and physical props that move on and off stage. It’s effective in conveying both the sweeping global impact of the war and the human cost as well. The final moments of the film offers a uniformed line of young GIs from various service branches morphing into the old men of today. Not all of them grow old. Some of them stay behind in their uniforms as young men. The old and young salute one another, and then the young soldiers exit the stage. It’s a touching and effective way of saying thank you to the Greatest Generation.
The other exhibits are more traditional in nature, but the quality of artifacts is top-notch. Given that the War was fairly recent, there is an abundance of mint condition uniforms, weapons, and artifacts from the era. Even as we were buying tickets, an elderly gent was speaking with a museum official to make a donation of some private property.
The most poignant aspect of the Museum is the display of personal effects showcasing the human element of the war. Dog tags, journals, letters, and photographs. Lots of photographs. All of these tell the story of countless young men who never made it home, and live imprisoned in the black and white world of the 1940’s. Many of the letters are heartbreaking. One letter is written by a young sailor to his father. It is a brave letter. It is the only type of letter a young man could write to his father. The young man was killed on the Saratoga the day after the letter was penned. His family received his letter along with the War Department notification of his death on the same day. Both items were displayed next to each other, along with his personal belongings – his class ring, dog tags, and journal – all charred and sooty.
These were hard stories to share with my family. I preferred to read them alone, so I could cover my tears. This human aspect of the war is the greatest contribution of the Museum. It’s driven home by reports from survivors of the violent beach invasions of Normandy who reported immeasurable amounts of personal items strown around the dead and dying. There were letters, photos of sweethearts, photos of wives, photos of parents, and photos of children with family pets. There were lucky charms, crosses, and packs of gum. But what stood out most to one survivor were the countless sheets of blank paper blowing up and down the beach and floating in the water. This was paper brought by young soldiers for letters they intended to write. These were the letters that would never be written.
War is a terrible thing. The Museum makes that clear. But it also makes clear that through all the pain, suffering, and injustice, there are good men who will rise above it all. Men who will bring light and hope to those suffering in darkness and despair. These are the men of the Greatest Generation; the boys of the Second World War. And for all the sweet memories unrealized because they were spent on my behalf, all I can say is Thank You.