WWII Museum in New Orleans celebrates its expansion

We take a look at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, a space established in 2000 to tell the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world. A $60-million addition will be unveiled Nov. 6.
By Julia Cass
Sunday, November 1, 2009

In 1944, Tom Blakey parachuted behind enemy lines just hours before the D-Day invasion of the beaches in Normandy. The other day, at the entrance to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, the 89-year-old was greeting people along with Fran Hoffman, 86, one of the first women in the Marine Corps, and Bert Staler, 90, who spent two days and two nights floating alone in the Pacific when his ship was sunk near Guadalcanal.

"We're down to 27 now; we lost another one last week," Blakey said of the World War II veterans volunteering at the museum. Then he cracked, "I'm so old, I don't buy green bananas."

About 900 World War II veterans die on average every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But Blakey, Hoffman, Staler and other veterans who are still kicking and able to travel will be standing on the red carpet at Friday's dedication of a $60 million addition to the World War II museum, which was established in 2000 to tell the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world.

The addition contains three new attractions: the Victory Theater, which will show a 35-minute immersive and literally seat-shaking 4-D film of the epic battles of the war; the Stage Door Canteen, which will re-create the entertainment that took place in famous wartime venues; and the American Sector restaurant, which will serve 1940s-inspired food by John Besh, one of New Orleans's top chefs (and a veteran of the Persian Gulf War).

Joining the veterans at the ceremony will be actor Tom Hanks, the narrator and executive producer of the Victory Theater film, "Beyond All Boundaries"; Tom Brokaw, author of "The Greatest Generation"; and servicemen and -women on active duty today.

The three days of opening festivities that begin Friday have been dubbed "Experience the Victory," a reference to not just the war but also the comeback of New Orleans's cultural institutions and tourism since Hurricane Katrina. According to the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, the number of visitors has not yet reached pre-Katrina levels, but it's increasing every year. The city now has more restaurants -- at least 1,000 -- than ever and more weekend festivals than you can shake an alligator sausage at. Nearly every month, it seems, some Katrina-closed institution reopens.

The new building, one of four slated to be added to the museum by 2015 at a total cost of $300 million, is the largest addition to the city's cultural landscape since the 2005 hurricane.

Workers were still hammering and drilling when two staff members gave me a tour. We started with the theater. The museum already shows two good films, but the new one uses much more advanced moviemaking technology. The show begins as an old radio, broadcasting the regular programming on Dec. 7, 1941, rises from a pit in front of the stage. The news of the attack on Pearl Harbor interrupts the program, and the red curtain covering the movie screen parts.

Multiple transparent screens and projectors give 3-D depth to the film, and objects rise from the pit or drop from the ceiling. The fourth dimension comes from the you-are-there atmospherics: Snow falls on the audience during the wintry Battle of the Bulge, the seats shake as German Tiger tanks rumble across North Africa, a spotlight shines on the viewers as a concentration camp guard tower rises from the pit in the darkness just before historical footage of the liberation of the death camps appears on the screens.

For the American Sector restaurant, Besh studied 1940s menus. "Not the flashiest on Earth," he said. "American dining has come a long way." He created a casual menu with popular food of the day that he and his staff will make by hand: extruding their own macaroni for mac and cheese, for example, and making their own Cracker Jacks and four types of sodas. Children will be served food in 1940s-era tin containers, and Besh had Spam-type cans made -- for rabbit terrine. Visitors can eat in the restaurant or order Besh's food at the Stage Door Canteen, an intimate space with small tables that on weekend evenings and Sunday afternoons will present shows featuring swing dancers, an Andrews Sisters-style group and other entertainers.

Historian and author Stephen Ambrose, the museum's founder, contributed to the trend away from great-man, top-down history with books such as "Citizen Soldiers" and "Band of Brothers." Similarly, his museum presents the war from the point of view of regular soldiers, nurses and factory workers.

In the huge room inside the entrance of the main complex, five airplanes hang from the ceiling. Tanks, a halftrack and other vehicles line one wall. On the far side of the room are two Higgins boats, the landing vessels used in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and in more than 50 amphibious landings on islands in the Pacific. Think of the small boat with the drop-down ramp that deposited Hanks and his fellow actors on the beach in "Saving Private Ryan."

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