Fantastic. Incredible. Powerful. Compelling. Emotional. Unforgettable. Awesome. Yes, these are just a few of the words that can be used to describe a visit to this famous museum. Several friends had recommended the National WWII Museum in New Orleans but we really had no idea what a totally immersive and educational experience it would be until we actually went there. Now we understand why it is the #1 New Orleans attraction (according to Trip Advisor), #3 museum in the U.S. and #8 museum in the world.
With family members in the military during the war and having seen a number of documentaries and movies, we both thought we had a decent amount of knowledge of the war. Rob’s uncle was a survivor of the Battan Death March, his other uncle was a paratrooper, my Dad was in the Coast Guard in the North Atlantic during the war and my uncle had served in the army as a photographer. A lot of knowledge? Nope, it quickly became obvious that we knew very little.
Opened in 2000 on the site of a former factory for the boats used in the D-Day invasion, this expansive, six-acre museum has been designated by Congress as the nation’s official WWII Museum, celebrating “the American Spirit, the teamwork, the optimism, courage and sacrifice of the men and women who fought on the battlefront and the home front.” The interactive exhibits, multimedia experiences and first person oral histories as well as the extraordinary collection of artifacts creates a totally immersive experience which is what we liked about the museum. We learned what lead up to the war, why it was fought, how it was won and what it means today.
It’s not cheap but it is so, so worth the expense. In fact, we had wanted to go last year when we were in New Orleans but we ran out of time and after spending quite a bit of money on other tours, we decided to postpone a visit. Going there was the major reason for our return to New Orleans this year.
Tickets can be bought either on-line or at the museum in the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion. Adults are $28.50; seniors $24.50; military, college students and children (K-12 grade) $18.00. WWII Vets and children under 5 are free. A second day pass which you will most likely need is $7. Keep your receipt as that is needed to get in for the second day. Realize that there is a separate charge for the two movies, Beyond All Boundaries with Tom Hanks and Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience – each movie is $7. Note that when you purchase your tickets, you will need to select a specific time to view either of the movies. There are several guided tours offered at an additional charge as well.
Trust me, purchasing the second day pass makes a lot of sense. Since there are six buildings to explore, it is too overwhelming and too exhausting to see it all in one day. But the good news is that you don’t need to decide if you will need a second day pass when you purchase your tickets (on-line or in person). Just bring your receipt with you to the pick up window within 7 days of your first visit to obtain an additional day.
The museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily except for Mardi Gras Day (Fat Tuesday), Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. A parking garage is located at 1024 Magazine Street – rates can be found on their website. Be aware that it can fill up early in the day especially on weekends or rainy days. We went to the museum on a Tuesday and a Thursday, arriving around 10:30 a.m. and there were plenty of parking spaces. Don’t worry, there are other lots in the area if the museum parking lot is full.
Before we went, we didn’t have a game plan, after all it was just a museum and who plans ahead for that! Usually you just wander from room to room, depending on the type of museum and your particular area of interest. But here you don’t want to wander. To obtain a full understanding of the progression of the war, you need to sequentially visit each building following the map given to you when you purchase your tickets. Here’s what we did:
On display in the atrium of the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion (which is where you purchase tickets), is an LCVP (landing craft, vehicle, personnel) or Higgins boat. More than 20,000 boats were designed and built by Higgins Industries in New Orleans and used in all major amphibious landings of the war. This boat was the famed D-Day landing craft showcased in the film Saving Private Ryan.
After purchasing our tickets, we made our way over to the reconstructed 1940’s train station where we would experience the sights, sounds and emotions of a recruit going off to war. After boarding the L.W. “Pete” Kent train car which is a stationary train modeled after the iconic Pullman sleeper cars of the 1940s, we heard the sound of the train roaring to life as videos were shown on the train windows simulating a train pulling out of the station.
This was also the starting point for our Dog Tag experience which is “an interactive Museum feature that uses digitally enabled “dog tag” IDs to connect each visitor with a real service member providing an individual narrative of the war.” Once our dog tag was registered and associated with our email address (which can be done on the train or at kiosks in the museum), we could continue to follow that person’s story after we left the museum by logging into the DogTagExperience website to listen to further narratives.
What a wonderful way to make the WWII experience more personal and to pay tribute to each and every person who was part of the war effort! My dog tag provided the story of Josephine Pescatore who was born in Philadelphia, graduated from nursing school in 1940 and served throughout Europe in as an Army nurse.To read about her, go to the website listed on the dog tag and type in the dog tag number. Rob was able to learn about the experiences of Louis Taix who emigrated from France to New Orleans with his parents. Wanting to see the world he joined the Merchant Marines.
Our first stop after disembarking the “train” was a visit to the Remembered Light Exhibit which is a temporary exhibit at the museum from November 21, 2019 to April 26, 2020. The story behind this exhibit is that US Army Episcopal chaplain Frederick McDonald, while serving under General Omar Bradley in the 12th Army Group in war-torn Europe, was devastated by the destruction of so many sacred places.
In the hopes that someday these places could eventually be memorialized, he collected shards of stained glass and other mementos from the sites he visited from 1944 to 1945. Thirteen artists wove these shards together creating twenty five works of stained glass art in 2003. Very moving display!
In the rest of the exhibits in the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, we learned about the events that led up to the war, about America’s reluctance to join in the war until the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and how the war was fought on the home front as documented in the exhibit highlights (scroll down) on their website.
Since both of us were born after the war, the only knowledge we have is from school, movies or documentaries, what struck us during this exhibit was how reluctant the U.S. was to enter the war until that “day that will live in infamy”, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, how ill prepared the country was to go to war and how the patriotic efforts at home spurned the country into very decisive and immediate action.
At noon, we headed over to building #2 Solomon Victory Theater to see the movie, Beyond All Boundaries which is narrated by executive producer, Tom Hanks. In the pre-show, also narrated by Tom Hanks, we learned that the 30 minute movie took five years to produce, involved the work of more than 500 historians, artists, craftspeople and technicians. To learn about the theater and how they made the film, watch this interesting video.
The 4D movie features “dazzling effects, CGI animation, multilayered environments, and first-person accounts from the trenches to the Home Front read by Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Gary Sinise, Patricia Clarkson, Wendell Pierce, and more.” Although all the whiz bangery of 4D was truly mind boggling, parts of the film were difficult to watch due to the content. Seeing what it took to “fight the war, from the bustling factories of the home front to the shores of Iwo Jima, from the bloody beaches of Normandy to the snowy fields of the Battle of the Bulge, from the fiery skies over Japan to the horrors of Jewish concentration camps” was very intense. And to learn that approximately 65 million people died during the war was really gut wrenching. The bulk of those casualties were suffered by the Chinese with approximately 20 million total deaths. So hard to comprehend that staggering figure which was primarily racial cleansing by the Japanese. By comparison the Holocaust claimed the lives of about 6 million Jews. The total US deaths (military & civilian) totaled about 1.5 million. These statistics are complex and can be viewed by many different perspectives, this link shows the total impact on a country by comparing lives lost to total population.
On a lighter note, if you are in the mood for a bit of of musical nostalgia, near the movie theater is the Stage Door Canteen which offers a variety of entertainment – big bands, dancing, the Victory Belles vocal trio, musical productions and headliner acts. Tickets can be purchased either on-line or in person at the museum.
Also near the theater is one of the two on site restaurant offerings, The American Sector Restaurant & Bar has a varied menu and is open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch and even has a Happy Hour between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 pm, offering small plates for $5 and 1/2 price cocktails. The other restaurant is outside and across from the entrance of the museum. The Jeri Nims Soda Shop offers breakfast, sandwiches and sweet treats and is open from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. We didn’t eat at either of them. Instead on our first full day there, rather than eating inside the museum, we saved a few bucks and walked about a block to Magazine Pizza where we enjoyed splitting a meatball sub ($10.50), served with fries. Really good sandwich! Must say that the pizzas looked yummy as well.
This is a stand-alone gallery that honors the mariners who risked their lives transporting weapons, men and materials to distant war fronts. This was a surprise to us – we didn’t realize that the Merchant Marines were involved in WWII but then again our knowledge of the war was apparently very limited.
Finished with lunch, we made our way back to the 32,000-square-foot Campaigns of Courage Pavilion which houses two main exhibits and the most intense of all the exhibits – The Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries on the first floor and The Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries on the second floor.
Here the war fronts from North Africa to the South Pacific to the heart of Germany are highlighted, detailing what preceded and followed the climactic D-Day landing at Normandy. Check out the Exhibit highlights on the museum’s website to learn more details about America’s story in Europe, Africa and the Mediterranean.
By the time we had seen all the exhibits on the Road to Berlin, it was after 4:00 p.m. and we had spent approximately six hours at the museum. We were tired and suffering from information overload so it was time to head back to the coach. The Road to Tokyo would be our priority for our return visit.
Before leaving for the day, we stopped outside to admire the “Lest We Forget: The Mission” bronze sculpture which was created by WWII P-38 combat fighter pilot Major Fredric Arnold who died at age 96 on Memorial Day 2018, two years after completing the sculpture.
Nearby were three large segments from the Atlantic Wall from a series of fortifications Hitler ordered built to guard Europe’s west coast from Allied assault. Each piece measures 5.5 feet tall and 18 inches thick, the sections total 35 feet in length and weigh nearly 22 tons. All are pockmarked from the gunfire of incoming Allied troops. Made up of mines, pillboxes, tank traps and the famous “Rommel’s asparagus” (the Allied name for poles planted in open spaces in France by the Germans to prevent gliders landing),” the Atlantic Wall stretched more than 3,200 miles.
Before we left, Rob sat and had a chat with FDR!
Once again we traveled across the American Spirit Bridge which took us “overseas” to the Road to Tokyo.
Through the 400 artifacts, short films and re-created wartime environments, it quickly became evident that the American GIs would be fighting in an unimaginably alien landscape. Tropical diseases caused more casualties than enemy warfare.
Engineers and US Construction Battalions (CB’s or SeaBees) faced many challenges clearing jungles and chiseling through ancient deposits of coral to build ports, runways for island hopping aircraft, barracks, and supply depots. To see the details about the Road to Tokyo check out their website.
Here’s an interesting story (at least to me). Back in January, I heard a story on the TV show, Sunday Morning about the Navy building an aircraft carrier. Nothing unusual there, right? But instead of following the usual convention and naming it after a president, a battle or a military leader, this ship was going to be named “Miller” after Doris Miller, the grandson of slaves and a son of sharecroppers. It will be the first time, a ship has been named after an African American.
When Doris (gee, think his mother expected a girl?) joined the Navy, “Navy policy limited blacks to those duties that were manual, that they thought didn’t require a whole lot of intellect.” African Americans were not allowed to hold any jobs that required handling any type of machine gun. Because of that, Doris’ duties were limited to the Messman’s branch which basically means that he took care of officers by laying out their clothes, shining their shoes, etc. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Doris was serving on the West Virginia battleship. As the attack continued, against all rules, Miller manned a .50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun and fired on the Japanese planes. He also helped carry and move injured sailors to safety. The Navy awarded medals to others who had fought bravely but never Doris. When President Roosevelt intervened and finally awarded Doris the Navy Cross, Doris went on a speaking tour and instantly became a celebrity. He was killed when he was serving on the aircraft carrier Liscombe Bay which was torpedoed a year after Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t a surprise to see a plaque about him in the Road to Tokyo exhibits.
The National WWII Museum’s Hall of Democracy is a three story, state-of-the-art research and education complex. It consists of a special exhibit gallery, research library, classroom, conference Room, distance-learning studio and media studio, media auditorium and a museum store. The special exhibit area was closed in prep for an exhibit coming in March. The Ghost Army, the astonishing true story of American GIs who tricked Hitler’s forces with rubber tanks, sound effects, and carefully crafted illusions during World War II.
On the ground floor of this pavilion, several “hunks of metal” were on display so we were able to get a close up look at several of the jeeps. Although the tanks which are normally on display here had been moved due to construction, we were able to see several different Jeeps up close.
On the second floor is the Laborde Services Gallery honors the 16 million men and women who served in all branches of the US Armed Forces, with uniforms and stories from each one.
Climb the stairs (Rob) or better yet for those of us who aren’t keen on being at higher elevations, take the elevator (me) to the sky-high catwalk for an up close look at WWII airplanes including the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress “My Gal Sal,” plus an SBD Dauntless and a TBM Avenger.
Boeing and its partners (Douglas Aircraft, McDonnell Aircraft, North American Aviation, and the Hughes Aircraft Company) worked together to produce a staggering 98,965 aircraft during the war effort. At Boeing, production went from 60 B-17s a month in 1942 to 362 a month in 1944. That’s amazing!
Wonder how they managed to get those planes up there? We did, check out this YouTube video to see how it was done.
Because of the glass exterior walls of this building, visitors have a behind-the-scenes view of the restoration and preservation of priceless World War II artifacts. Here we saw first-hand the techniques that conservators use to repair and restore boats, vehicles, weapons, military equipment and other artifacts which played an important role in winning World War II for the Allies.
Interesting to learn about the restoration of a PT-305 manufactured by Higgins Industries in New Orleans which was in bad repair in Galveston and brought to the restoration pavilion for repair. Rides on the PT-305 on Lake Pontchartrain are offered on Saturdays with limited availability. Costs: $249 per person; $224 for seniors, children ages 12–17, military, and Museum Members.
Once we left this building, our two day, very memorable visit to the museum was done. I should also mention there is more construction and expansion in the works, so expect there to be even more exhibits when you visit.
A few word’s in closing….
On the museum’s website, it says “every day, memories of World War II – its sights and sounds, its terrors and triumphs – disappear.” Yes, that unfortunately is true as the average age of our WWII vets today is 92 and over 400 in the U.S. die each year. But, thanks to this incredible museum, we won’t and can’t forget. Through the presentation of artifacts, oral histories, serialized “Dog Tag” profiles, extensive use of short films, and recreated environments, the millions who lost their lives or were injured as well as those at home who worked so hard and sacrificed so much will continue to be honored and remembered. We owe so much to the “Greatest Generation” and all the other men and women who have fought so bravely and have sacrificed so much in subsequent wars for the freedom that we enjoy today.