By Jug Varner
Veterans who saw the ceremonies live, or on C-SPAN, can testify to what a “tear-jerker” it was at times — as well as to say how appreciative they are for permanent recognition that may rekindle patriotism in current and future generations.
A diverse group of Americans took part in this stirring tribute at the New Orleans Arena. On hand were several WWII Medal of Honor recipients, Defense Secretary William Cohen, master of ceremonies Tom Brokaw, film star Tom Hanks, producer-director Steven Spielberg, Miss America, historian Dr. Stephen Ambrose (who conceived the museum idea and contributed considerable funds and endless work), Dr. Gordon Mueller (museum chairman), and thousands of WWII veterans, their families and friends.
Keeping APAce visited the museum later in June to bring you this first-hand report for those who may want to see it at some future date.
D-DAY MAY NOW LIVE IN FUTURE HEARTS AND MINDS
Certain dates of major events in one's experience remain for a lifetime. For me, two of these are Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 — the beginning of WWII for America — and D-Day on June 6, 1944 — the beginning of the end for the Axis powers of Italy, Germany and Japan.
There are other dates as well, but I was a teenager at the time of Pearl Harbor and knew I would be going to war when old enough. The fear of the unknown was strong, particularly with many early losses by our forces in the Pacific. But that fear was overcome by the exhilaration of patriotism to serve my country that beckoned me to join the Navy at my first opportunity.
Fifteen months later, I began training to become a Navy pilot, and on June 6, 1944, had started my first day in the final six-week phase. On that morning the blare of hangar loudspeakers announced the news that allied forces had started landing on Normandy's shores hours earlier. There was no TV in those days and radio and newspaper stories were censored, so it was a slow and excruciating wait for word of success or failure of that dramatic event.
By mid-July I was ready for action in the war. Little did we know then that the war would be over in just 15 months. We knew nothing about a secret bomb that would end it well ahead of the predicted drawn-out siege of the Japanese homeland. In fact, none but a highly select few knew about it. Even those in training to drop it didn't know what it was…what an awesome thing they would carry.
While everyone in that war was fated to be in certain places around the world at given times, and millions died, suffered injury, or were imprisoned along the way, no sacrifice of human life was any greater than another - yet, the utter sacrifices of D-Day typified war in its most bloody form and served as the turning point in the long-march back from near annihilation of American forces in the early days of 1942. It is a lesson in unpreparedness that our congress and current administration do not seem to remember very well. Nor do many young students in our high schools and colleges know or appreciate this history. And that's why a museum of this type is important.
One of the features of the museum is the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, the dramatic entrance hall for that state's tribute to veterans and citizens on the homefront who secured the Allied victory. The museum's centerpiece is an authentic reproduction of a Higgins Boat (LCVP) built by volunteers, some of whom worked at the now defunct boat company.
The museum is still a work in progress, containing American and German artifacts from the Normandy invasion including jeeps, a half-track, two German officer staff cars and a motorcycle, and two sentry boxes that were part of Hitler's “Atlantic Wall” defense system in France.
There are many static and audio-visual displays that tell the story of the Normandy invasion - the mobilization of the American war effort, the military preparations for the invasion, the air and sea assault that led the way, the invasion itself and the beaches of Normandy, the path to victory in Europe, and the Higgins boatyard. Eventually there will be nine galleries, including a 5,000 sq. ft. Pacific exhibit scheduled to open on the 59th anniversary of D-Day at Guadalcanal, August 7, 2001.
Located at the corner of Howard and Magazine Streets in the Warehouse District some ten blocks south of Canal Street, ths National D-Day Museum has steadily drawn large crowds of all ages since its opening day. When you go, see the film presentation in the main theater before proceeding to the various exhibits.
A gift shop and food facilities are available on site, and elevators are provided for those unable to climb stairs. Helpful docents, many of whom are veterans of D-Day, offer directions and information about the museum. Some will share their personal war experiences if asked.
If you served in WWII, lived during that era, or have friends or relatives who did, visiting this special place will bring back many memories of those times and experiences and increase your appreciation for whatever part you or they played in this greatest event of the 20th Century.
For the current and future generations, it will serve as a well-documented lesson in history and close-up look at a special culture that is gradually fading from the American scene. Tom Brokaw was absolutely right - this was the “greatest generation.