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A new addition to WWII Museum

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."

The Higgins boat is the reason the National World War II Museum is in New Orleans. When the war came, Andrew Higgins, a local boat builder, modified the shallow boats he made for the oil and gas industry to use in the Louisiana swamps and manufactured 20,000 of them by war's end. As the museum staff members tell the story, Ambrose, who taught at the University of New Orleans until his death in 2002, was interviewing Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe, for a biography. Eisenhower asked whether Ambrose knew Higgins, commenting that the boat builder had "won the war for the Allies" because his shallow boat could land on almost any beach. Ambrose later told that story to fellow historian Gordon "Nick" Mueller, the museum's current president and chief executive. "We should build a D-Day museum," Ambrose said. In 2003, Congress designated the resulting museum the official National World War II Museum.

The two primary standing exhibits focus on amphibious landings on Normandy and in the Pacific. Both feature enlarged photographs and newspaper articles; cases with weapons, helmets, uniforms and other historic objects; and, if you look closely, hundreds of individual stories. Along the walls are touch screens with two-minute video oral histories and cases containing letters, diaries and objects that belonged to individual soldiers. A case honoring James Ogleby of Shreveport, La., contains the "deeply regret to inform you" telegram to his family and a statement by his brother that "everything changed" after Ogleby was killed: "Father started to drink, and mother went to bed basically for two years."

The most appealing part of the focus on the average G.I. Joe is the most low-tech: the veterans themselves. Jim Weller, 92, had placed a photograph of himself as a young soldier on the ramp of the Higgins boat the day I visited. He told me about his war service as a tank driver in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge. He didn't talk about the bad things he'd witnessed. Instead, he described spending 14 days in Paris after the German surrender and drinking so much champagne that he got onstage with a cancan dancer.

Julia Cass is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.

National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine St., New Orleans. 504-528-1944. http://www.nationalww2museum.org. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $16.

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