New Orleans gives D-Day
its Museum The D-Day invasion
blasted 55 miles off the shoreline of Normandy in France. So why
locate a museum to this epic battle in New Orleans? Read the exciting
account by Arturo and Maureen Brigid Gonzalez
"World War II's veterans are dying now at a rate of 1500 a day.
And the total's ever rising. That's more deaths than when they were
fighting. What we've just built here in New Orleans honors them.
And captures many of their wartime memories before it's too late."
We're talking to Beverly Gianna, a New Orleans spokesperson, in
front of the 70,500 square-foot, green-hued, four-floor, former
Nineteenth Century brewery and warehouse in the city's Canal Street
Historic Warehouse District - the National D-Day Museum that opened
on June 6th, the 56th anniversary of the greatest seaborne invasion
in all history.
That invasion of 5,333-ships, 11,000 planes, and 250,000 soldiers
blasted 55 miles off the shoreline of Normandy in northern France.
So what is the logic of locating the museum commemorating this epic
battle in distant New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi River?
"It's Ike Eisenhower's fault," smiles Dr. Stephen Ambrose, the
historian, best-selling author and New Orleans University professor
who spearheaded the 15-year effort to open this memorial to D-Day.
"Eisenhower was interviewing me about being one of the scholars
to edit and publish his memoirs. He noted that I was from New Orleans,
and, out of the blue, asked me if I knew Andy Higgins. I didn't
know Higgins personally, but I knew his reputation as a tough-talking,
hard-driving World War II shipbuilder whose company launched an
armada of WWII landing craft. Ike expanded on his interest, saying
'Andy Higgins is the man who won the war for us'."
Then and there, Dr. Ambrose decided America ought to do something
to honor Higgins and the boats he built. And that it ought to happen
in New Orleans, where, at the peak of WWII production, Higgins had
eight factories employing 30,000 men, women, whites and blacks,
elderly and handicapped, turning out the flat-bottomed, front-ramp-dropping
plywood and steel boats which carried 36-fully armed troops at a
time, or their jeeps and light artillery, ashore into Normandy,
and onto beachheads all over the globe.
By September of 1943, the US Navy had 14,072 vessels under commission.
Some 12,964 of them (92%) had been designed by Higgins, and many
had made their first test cruises on the city's neighboring Lake
Pontchartrain. To impress Navy buyers and prove that they were battle
durable, Higgins would sometimes deliberately ram them into the
Walking into the D-Day Museum's enormous entry hall, we spot, to
our left a huge American flag, and under it, the last Higgins LCVP
(landing craft, vehicle/personnel) ever built. Hardly a single Higgins
boat from the World War II era is still afloat today. This last
vessel was created less than a year ago, using salvaged blueprints
from World War II days, by a small, intense cadre of retired Higgins
workers eager to build just one last boat in memory of the old man,
who died in 1952. It was christened by Gayle Higgins Jones, Andy's
grand-daughter, in 1999, and made its shakedown cruise on Lake Pontchartrain
(as during World War II) before being transported to the D-Day Museum
to become its premier exhibit.
|An American paratrooper
complete jump equipment
Around it are camouflaged German vehicles salvaged from Normandy's
beaches. Above swoops an RAF Spitfire carrying the six white wingstripes
used as quick battlefield ID during the invasion. Sharing its patch
of the museum sky is an American Army spotter plane, a spindly khaki-colored
Piper Cub which loitered over the invasion beaches, calling in artillery
strikes on the entrenched German defenders. An American half-track
displays on its side the saucy female figure of the driver's girlfriend,
a very human touch often seen on Allied war machines.
For 48 minutes we sit in the 110-seat Forbes Theater and experience
D-Day as it was reported by military and civilian cameramen who
went in with the first waves. D-Day Remembered, directed by Charles
Guggenheim, is a gripping, Oscar-nominated documentary, showing
the Higgins boat ramps dropping and the men dashing for shore as
Nazi machine gun bullets ping. A few GI's crumple in the hail of
fire among the several thousand Allied troops who perished on this
This is not a museum filled with thousands of invasion day artifacts.
Instead, this $25 million exhibition marries narration, audio-tapes
in nine separate oral history booths, vintage photographs and battlefield
artifacts into a dramatic and compelling account of what the landing
looked like, and felt like, from the moments when soldiers clambered
down netting into their Higgins boats, through the noisy, dangerous
shellfire to the beach, until after the ramps dropped and the troops
carved out the Allies' first perilous foothold on Hitler's Fortress
We look out at the massive invasion armada through the slits of
a German pillbox. We wander onto a field where a British glider
carrying troops has just crash-landed. There are electronic maps
of the shifting battle lines, panels of texts, photo-murals, and
replicas of battlefield items we can pick up, and even wear. The
exhibits reach back into the past to explain how history led up
to D-Day, and cover some of what happened in Europe after the invasion
Vets dug into their foot lockers to bring D-Day artifacts to the
museum. There is, for instance, a battered, folded copy of the Order
of the Day, which Eisenhower printed and issued to all his troops
on their way to battle. Nicholas Butrico, a private in the Rangers
going into one of the hottest landing zones, scribbled a prayer
on the top of his. Later, he wrote on its back his memories of the
day, including that of squadmate Chester, who couldn't swim, and
was the first soldier out of the boat, only to have a wave lift
up the craft and drop it down on him, crushing and drowning him.
Paratrooper Ford McKenzie donated the most innocent looking artifact:
a child's brass "cricket", the clicker all the jumpers carried into
battle. In the dark, it was the unit's ID. One click had to be answered
immediately by two clicks. "If you didn't click back," McKenzie
says, "it was assumed you were the soon-to-be-dead enemy."
One of the most lethal-looking weapons on display is "Dutch" Schultz's
World War I-vintage trench knife, with a knuckle-duster handle,
which the paratrooper took into France. He used it only once, to
cut himself out of his entangling chute when he landed, not realizing
until later that he had cut off a finger in the process. He still
recalls vividly talking at length to a paratrooper alongside him,
without reply, until he realized that the silent soldier had a bullethole
right through his forehead. "It was the first dead man that I'd
ever seen in my whole life."
|United States Marines
raising the American flag
on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima 1945
A 9th Air Force bomber pilot, Asa Clark, Jr. was aboard a B-26
on his 45th mission when D-Day occurred. His contribution is a cardboard
tag - the type attached to the arming pin of each bomb, removed
in flight before they were dropped. Clark saved a tag from each
raid, and wrote on the back if the raid was hot, a milk run, or
whatever. Of this D-Day sortie, he scribbled. "The big show is on."
Other exhibits feature a watch worn on D-Day, a soldier's private
bible taken into battle, a rifle with its stock shattered by machinegun
fire, a helmet that stopped a bullet, and a paratrooper's boot sliced
through by a Nazi round.
The most poignant exhibit is a simple GI web belt, carrying on
it the standard issue canteen and trench knife plus a number of
the simple first aid kits issued to each GI. A sailor named Leo
Scheer wore it ashore; he was a medic attached to the beach battalion.
He explains, "All the bandages but one, mine, were taken from dead
soldiers along the shore. This was because we lost all our medical
supplies…and we were forced to take the bandages from the dead to
use on the living. The belt is dear to me because the bandages came
from GI's who gave up their lives at Omaha Beach."
The gala opening of the new museum on June 6, this year was seen
by the largest collection of D-Day vets to gather in the States
in recent memory. There were numerous Medal of Honor winners in
the stellar audience, along with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg,
both Oscar winners for their Saving Private Ryan, and NBC's Tom
Brokaw, author of a best seller about the WWII generation. Secretary
of Defense Cohen presided over the accompanying military parade
and flyover by 64 planes from the US military.
Today, the D-Day Museum commemorates the landing at Normandy. But
expansion is already under way, and the new wing to open in August
2001 will play tribute to all the many landings leapfrogging across
the Pacific, and elsewhere in the world, where Allied GI's and Higgins
boats combined to win victory over the Axis and, later, Communist
forces around the world.
"Of all the things I've done in my life," Dr. Ambrose says of this
magnificent museum, this is the one of which I'm proudest. By far.
It will teach billions of young Americans that freedom doesn't come
The National D-Day Museum is in New Orleans' Historic Warehouse
District at 945 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70130. For general
Phone: (504) 527-6012.
The Museum opens seven days a week, 9 am to 5 pm, except on New
Year's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and (since this is New Orleans)
Mardi Gras. The charges are $7 for adults, $6 for Seniors over 65
and students with ID, $5 for children aged five to seventeen, children
under five, free. Visit PJ's Café and the Museum Store, free during
museum hours. The Museum is wheelchair accessible.
Arky Gonzalez is a Florida-based free-lancer and Past President
of the Society of American Travel Writers. He and his Irish-born
journalist wife, Maureen, met in Europe, lived overseas for almost
20 years and have chased down stories on all seven continents.