On The War Path: Visiting New Orleans’ World War II Museum
Story & photos by Jeanne Muchnick
Forrest Villarrubia didn’t talk about his experiences during World War II until five years ago when he joined the volunteer staff at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Now, the 90-year-old former Marine (he served in the Philippines and other parts of the Pacific from 1943 to 1946), sits at the “I Was There” booth in the lobby of the museum four days a week telling – and retelling – his story, the good, the bad, the ugly and the memorable. He even has props including his brother’s Purple Heart, photos from his childhood sweetheart that he kept with him through the war (they married when he returned), a map of where he served, and other assorted newspaper clippings and photos showing his journey through the years.
He talks so much, in fact, he guestimates he’s chatted to people from most parts of the globe. And that’s not an exaggeration. The museum, according to a 2014 Trip Advisor report, is the number one most popular attraction in New Orleans. It also ranks number 11 as one of the top-visited museums in the world.
Meeting men like Villarrubia certainly helps make the museum come alive – talking with him was among the highlights of my recent visit — but, with this generation dwindling and only a handful of vets like him around able to share their experiences, the museum has recently added elements to keep the experience as personal as possible.
Before I detail the museum’s new dog tag program where you can access a soldier’s story, following him through the war and finding out at the end whether they lived or died, let me step back a bit and tell you I’m no World War II buff. I love New Orleans for its character, its food, its gorgeous architecture and its funky voodoo culture. I could be happy walking or biking around its pastel-colored neighborhoods, checking out its many restaurants, parking myself at a bar stool and taking in its melodic flavors or spending an afternoon in the French Quarter because, when in Rome, it’s the thing to do.
With all there is in to do in the Big Easy, setting out a chunk of time for visiting The National World War II Museum, though certainly interesting, wasn’t tops on my list. I’ve been before – three years ago, in fact, mostly because my husband is big into history and I was trying to make him happy. Truth be told, I sort of felt that if you’ve been once, you’ve been enough. But I was wrong.
The museum, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary (it opened in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum and in 2004 was designated by Congress as the National WWII Museum), is constantly evolving. So much so that a lot had changed since my previous visit. Not only did I learn a lot more – details about that in a moment – but I left the museum after four hours thinking I could easily go back for more. (In fact the museum offers a Second Day pass for an additional $6 allowing you to go back and revisit what you missed, a nice option as it leaves you time to absorb all you’ve seen.)
So, why did I enjoy it so much?
To start off with, the experience is more personal. There is now a replica of a Pullman train car soldiers used to take when leaving home. A small computer screen at your seat prompts you to enter your basic information (name and email) and keys in the digital dog tag (basically a keycard in army green) you are given when you buy your ticket. I got the name Roy Rickerson, a Bossier City, Louisiana man born November 9, 1918 that worked as a chief statistical clerk for the railroad before joining the Army. He was inducted at Camp Beauregard just eight days after Pearl Harbor and later was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, a wartime intelligence agency and the predecessor to the CIA. (photo: Train)
What I enjoyed was that I could track him at various dog tag stations throughout the exhibit as well as back home. Mark, my husband, got Jimmy Stewart, which was cool because how many of us really know his army history?
Though the 4-D movie “Beyond All Boundaries,” narrated by Tom Hanks, has been in existence since 2009, it wasn’t something Mark and I had done before. I normally don’t like to take an hour out of my museum experience to view a movie – I prefer to go direct to the exhibits – but this came highly recommended so we decided to check it out. I was glad we did and am now one of those who have jumped on the bandwagon of recommendations. The movie gives a comprehensive overview of the war in an easy to understand format, as well as – again – personal touches.
An old-fashioned radio, positioned on the edge of the screen, brings the war into the living room, giving viewers a sense of the worry and fear of the American public at the time, allowing for a better sense of time and place. Later, dark silhouettes of people – they look like real profiles – appear on stage as they morph from businessman to servicemen as they sign up to ship off overseas. Airplanes and war tanks later appear as the war clamors on complete with rumbling beneath your seat and whirling motions overhead.
Seeing the movie made the exhibits make a lot more sense to me. In fact, it made some of our museum viewing quicker as some of the short films throughout were a tad repetitive to what we had viewed in the movie.
Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries had not been created when I last visited; it opened in mid-December 2014 and is built around the larger context of the European Front, detailing what preceded and followed the climactic D-Day landing at Normandy. What I loved about it was its mood: crafted with an architectural equivalent of “you are there” complete with crumbling buildings, bomb-torn rooftops, icy pathways and a chillingly realistic soundscape. It’s a bit dark, a bit cold and as close to the citizen soldier experience as you can get. There are also a lot of personal artifacts to bring it “home,” items like handwritten letters, jackets, guns, cigarette boxes and mess kits, which offer a touching perspective on the human cost of the war.
The story of the war is the most important event of the 20th century and continues to frame world politics today, explained Bob Farnsworth, Senior Vice President of Capital Programs for the museum. The stories and the lessons of the war are not well known by many of today’s younger generation (noting their grandparents and to a lesser degree their parents experienced the war first hand). Which is why The National WWII Museum tries so hard to create the deep context within which to present the stories. “This is not your old-fashioned, walk past a diorama,” said Farnsworth, “But instead is an immersive environment meant to tell the story in a creative way that resonates with visitors.”
Hours upon hours and years of research go into every detail of the exhibit from the graphic panels to the lighting to the interactive maps to the glass displays to the scripts. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve said something was ‘close,’ but needed more drama,” he said. “It was very important to put our visitors in the context of what was happening at the time – we worked really hard to do that so they could understand what the country was feeling, what the soldiers were feeling, in a very real way.”
Mission accomplished, I have to say.
Among my favorite rooms of The Road to Berlin is a replica of an Air Force barracks made of corrugated metal. At the center is an interactive briefing table that re-created bombing runs. This is surrounded by display cases filled with aircrew uniforms while up above, a ragged bomb hole in the roof simulates a blue sky where various aircraft fly overhead. You can sense the urgency, the worry, and the terror.
Other things that stayed with me/caught my attention:
- The exact M1 Helmet worn by Lt. Leonard Stoddard who survived D-Day landing in France.
- A captured Nazi flag that members of the SS Cornelius Hartnett signed their names and ship positions on.
- The cigarette case of Pfc. Andrew Sexton who credits it for saving his life in battle. The case deflected a bullet over his heart.
- Ernie Pyle Display: The beloved war correspondent poignantly wrote of the “litter” he saw on the beaches after D-Day–cigarette papers, soap, photos, and blank writing paper that represented the unfulfilled promise of those who were dead. These items are displayed on actual sand from Utah Beach to illustrate the human cost of war.
And that’s not even the half of it! There is a lot to see and a lot to absorb here. The Road to Berlin captures the time period from 1942 to 1945 and is divided into 10 sections so that you get a sense of the war’s progress as you head into each area. This includes a European/Mediterranean Briefing Room, a Dessert War in North Africa (complete with a 1943 Jeep and dozens of iconic weapons), the Invasion of Sicily, the Italian Campaign Gallery (where you’ll find the Nazi flag and cigarette case mentioned above), the Air War (with a recreated Quonset hut), D-Day Theater, a Northwestern Europe focus on the invasion and liberation, a Breaching the German Frontier area, Battle of the Bulge and Into the German Homeland, which includes upsetting scenes from the Ohrdruf concentration camp (the first Nazi death camp liberated by American forces).
Road to Berlin, however, is only part of the story and will soon be joined by Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries set to open December 12 along with the opening of The American Spirit Bridge and LTJG Ralph R. Crump Merchant Marine Exhibit. This exhibit will also be immersive but thanks to 38-foot high ceilings, offers a completely different feeling, again showing visitors the vast differences fighting in different parts of the globe entailed.
Like the Road to Berlin, it will feature state-of-the-art monitors, touch screens and surround audio help to recreate the look, feel and sounds of war from a Japanese Zero to tropical Pacific Islands. And, thanks to the dog tag experience and even more monitors, visitors will be able to experience the courage and sacrifice of participants in an emotional and resonant way by getting paired with a virtual guide detailing the fates of real servicemen and women. (The museum’s social media platforms are also available to engage, question and discover even more post visit).
The heightened elevation of this pavilion will create even more drama as it traces the path that led from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay by way of New Guinea and Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, Burma and the islands of the Pacific. Among the highlights expected to “wow” visitors: An authentic restoration of a P-40 Warhawk—painted with the iconic markings of the Flying Tigers.
If you’re planning to visit before May 2016, you’ll also get to enjoy the temporary exhibit of African Americans during the war with the “Fighting for the Right to Fight” exhibit. This begins with an overview of America in the 1920s during the height of segregation and discrimination.
And there’s more: The Liberation Pavilion is slated to open in 2018 and will focus on the closing months of the war and immediate post war years.
The National World War II Museum is located at 945 Magazine St, New Orleans, (504) 528-1944 or 877-813-3329; www.nationalww2museum.org/. Admission is $24 for adults, $14.50 for kids grades K through 12; $20.50 for seniors and $14.50 for military.
Where to Stay: Hotel Le Marais, 717 Conti St, (504) 525-2300, http://www.hotellemarais.com/. This boutique hotel is right in the heart of the French Quarter but with quiet rooms (I promise! I slept great!) and easy walking access to everywhere. Continental breakfast is included in the price and there’s a lovely outdoor courtyard with a small pool and comfy sofas for lounging, reading and taking in the New Orleans vibe.
Jeanne Muchnick, a longtime lifestyles and travel writer, has written for The New York Times, The Journal News, Parents, Woman’s Day, Woman’s World, Endless Vacation, FamilyFun, Parents, Westchester Magazine, and New You, along with a host of websites and travel guides. The author of Dinner For Busy Moms, she presently works as the Features Editor at the Daily Voice. (www.jeannemuchnick.com)