A war story: The history of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans
The year was 1990, and noted University of New Orleans historian Stephen Ambrose, a prolific author of books on World War II, was sipping sherry in his backyard with friend and colleague Gordon “Nick” Mueller. It was then that Ambrose shared an idea he had been kicking around: the opening of a museum to house the artifacts he had amassed while writing such books as “D-Day” and “Band of Brothers.” Ten years later — on June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy — the National D-Day Museum opened with great fanfare in New Orleans’ Warehouse District.
What started as one building has morphed into an institution that eventually will comprise seven buildings, plus a hotel. By an act of Congress in 2004, it was designated the National World War II Museum, and its name was changed to reflect that status. It has also become a phenomenal tourist attraction and the site for dozens of symposia and lectures on World War II. According to museum figures, 678,511 guests visited it last year, bringing the total since its opening to more than 5 million.
- Opening-day festivities of the museum included a parade through the city’s streets and were attended by the likes of actor Tom Hanks, director Steven Spielberg and news anchor Tom Brokaw. The real celebrities, though, were the grand marshals of the parade: eight World War II Medal of Honor recipients, each of whom rode solo in a vintage Jeep.
- Scores of other D-Day veterans also rode in the parade, in the backs of military trucks. They were joined by nine military marching bands from the United States, France and the United Kingdom. Overhead, vintage military aircraft soared as red, white and blue confetti rained down. “I’ve seen bigger parades, but no more enthusiastic,” said Medal of Honor recipient Herschel Williams, a veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima. “If this doesn’t do something for you, then you might as well pack it in.”
- The museum, which focuses on the American experience in World War II, has amassed about 9,000 written, oral and video accounts from veterans of the conflict.
- The museum also houses more than 190,000 artifacts. Among them: Jeeps, aircraft and tanks, as well as such items as a silver teapot bearing Adolf Hitler’s initials and Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr.’s flight log for the Enola Gay for August 1945, which includes an entry for the day the crew dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
- Before the museum became a reality, much of Ambrose’s collection of D-Day artifacts — the seeds of the museum — was for a time housed in a filing cabinet at the University of New Orleans’ Eisenhower Center, a scholarship center founded and led by Ambrose from 1989 to 1994.
- The Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, with whom Ambrose worked as a historical consultant on the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan,” is the executive producer of “Beyond All Boundaries,” a multimedia show offered daily at the museum that traces the history of World War II.
- Hanks, Mueller and Brokaw were named chevaliers of the Legion of Honor — France’s highest honor — for their museum-related work to keep alive the memories of World War II and France’s role in it.
- Running through the middle of the museum’s six-acre campus is a stretch of Howard Avenue that has been renamed Andrew Higgins Drive to honor the New Orleans boat builder responsible for the landing craft that President Dwight Eisenhower credited with helping the Allies win the war.