Written Tuesday, December 29 – New Orleans, LA
I was at a loss for where to go and what to go today in the morning, but recourse to the old standbys of TripAdvisor and such yielded the National World War II Museum. I was impressed by the immense ratings that people gave, and thankfully, it was only a fifteen-minute walk from our hotel in the Central Business District. So my mom and I made the trek, and as recommended, ended up spending the whole day there.
As a museum, it is absolutely immense. There are five separate buildings – several we didn’t need to go into because they hosted the theatre and restaurant, but the others we all ended up seeing. We saw several large exhibits and some really innovative components, all in exquisite detail and with many descriptions, uniforms, artifacts, illustrations, and audio-visual clips or short movies. The Home Front exhibit showed the war effort at home, from ration coupons to recruiting posters for the Women’s Army Corps (“Before she married, Mommy served in the WACs in the Philippines.”) They detailed collection of even household fat and how it was rendered into glycerine to make bombs. The scale of the war effort was truly astounding. We also saw the D-Day Exhibit, which went into exactly how it was conceived, structured, and how the decision was made. We learned that the British and Canadians were assigned to Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches, and the Americans to Utah and Omaha. What I found fascinating was the amount of preparation that went into it beforehand – how bombers tried to knock out German weaponry first and then paratroopers were dropped into Normandy ahead of time to secure roads and towns. By the time that June 5th dawned, many Allied forces had already come into Normandy.
One of the most interesting parts of the story was the dog tag experience. When you bought your tickets, you were given a card with an illustration of a dog tag on it. The very first exhibit was a Union Pacific traincar, which took you on the ride that many soldiers began with. We were able to “register” the dog tag which brought up the story of a real individual who went through World War II. We could then track their progress during the war at different exhibits in the museum. Fittingly, I was given the story of William Putney, a veterinarian officer who ran the Army Dogs Training Academy. He and others trained dogs to alert officers without barking and to become messenger dogs and scouting dogs. Those dogs saved many lives in the Pacific, helping root out Japanese forces on mountainous islands with caves and tunnels. He finished out the war by detraining these dogs and helping return many of them to families who had donated them for the war cause. It was a really great story, and a very unique way of following someone through the war.
We also saw two other exhibits – The Road to Berlin and the Road To Tokyo, documenting America’s involvement in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of World War II. In some places, the exhibit took us through the landscape that they were fighting in – a quiet, predawn landscape with crickets to put us on the very morning of D-Day in Normandy, or a rough and leafy landscape with many tropical plants to simulate the hot jungles of Pacific islands. Much of the Road to Tokyo resembled the inside of a battleship with armored walls. Finally, we capped off the exhibits by visiting the center with all the planes and tanks. These vehicles were truly extraordinary, and we were given the chance to admire them from as tall as a four-story perspective, which put us above four or five planes, ranging from small nimble fighters to larger cumbersome bombers. It was truly extraordinary to go down a walkway four stories in the air and see all the planes below us.
As an experience, it was very sobering. The lives lost were heartbreaking to see. What is always so wrenching about death is that so much human potential and so much investment after years of education and training can be wiped out in a single moment. Actually, we are very fragile human beings. I think that’s what is terrifying to me about death and life. On a whole other level is the disgust over what war does to human beings, how meaningless some of those lives lost were, and how disposable armies become to the leaders who are responsible for winning or losing battles and firefights. For example, paratroopers who flew into Normandy the night before D-Day put their lives into the balance of the war and for such useless reasons. Cloudy skies put many of them off course, and they crashed into trees or drowned in the waters. Gliders too faced a meaningless end when their so-called flying coffins of plywood and fabric came apart on impact. More lives were lost due to tropical disease in the Pacific campaign than actually to enemy fire. The amphibious boats which landed D-Day troops opened their ramps too early, and disgorged their cargo into many more feet of water rather than dry land. Some of the boys, 18 or younger if they had lied about their age to enlist, couldn’t swim and were swept away. And if you made it through Europe, marching into Paris or Rome or Berlin in celebration, chances were that you would still be sent to the Pacific. I honestly do not know how learning about war cannot make you a pacifist. Because seeing the toll it exacts from people and how meaningless and wasteful it is, I would do almost everything to avoid it.
World War I may have been a more revolutionary war that changed the history of the 20th century, but World War II is much more recent and deeper in our consciousness. Steve’s grandfather served in World War II, and helped to rebuild post-war Paris. I saw many vets at the exhibit too who volunteered there. That evening, we watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I couldn’t help but think of the Higgins boats that made amphibious wars possible, with the ramps that let troops onto land from the sea. Watching the firefights, I thought of escort fighter jets that accompanied the more ungainly bombers, and what kind of formations they used.
We ended our time in New Orleans with a drink and a cup of gumbo after the movie at Chartres House in the French Quarter. It’s been a pretty interesting time overall. I probably would’ve enjoyed myself more if I had visited with Steve, and we could have spent some time listening to jazz or enjoying all the good restaurants and drinks. As it was, I did like walking around all the parks and places with my mom. Maybe I’ll be back to see more one day.