My friend Frenchy and I returned to town near the end of my recent research trip to attend the graduate MFA readings (congratulations, Allie Mariano, in fiction!). In the two days we were in town, Frenchy, who lives up a mountain alone, succumbed to a childhood virus at a pizza party, like a Martian in The War of the Worlds. We’d driven 3,000 miles along the Gulf coast and were beat but had to head back out so he could catch a plane in New Orleans.
We did make one last stop there, at the The National WWII Museum. It started as a D-Day museum in 2000, founded by historian and author Stephen Ambrose, with fundraising and PR help from Tom Hanks, who says: "Anybody visiting can really have almost, if not a bachelor of arts degree in the history of World War II, like an associate of arts degree, just by spending three days and really combing the place." That’s a big savings on time and money over pesky classes and books. In 2003 Congress officially designated it “America’s National WWII Museum.” It’s still a private 501c3 corporation, but I’d vote for the Smithsonian taking it over as a remote campus if that's the connection they want to make.
The museum is in New Orleans because of Andrew Jackson Higgins, a businessman who built boats—a lot of boats, to his own designs—for the war effort there. Dwight Eisenhower said of him: “Andrew Jackson Higgins is the man who won the war for us. Without Higgins-designed boats that could land over open beaches, the whole strategy of the war would have to be rethought.” (This line is quoted more than once in the museum, each with slightly different wording.) Hitler himself was apparently aware of Higgins and is said to have called him the new Noah. In 1943, according to signage, 92% of the entire US Navy’s craft was designed by Higgins Industries, and seven of his plants in New Orleans employed 30,000 workers.
The photo here shows one of Higgins’ landing craft (the LCM-3 model, I believe) steaming ashore at Leyte, where it’s likely that my father, who commanded amphibious tanks, is already on the beach. I spent a lot of time in the service cruising around on LCM-6s, LCM-8s, and LCUs, and I still find them so iconic and utilitarian that an LCM figures in the book I’m working on.
While I very much admire the mission of the museum, the place feels like a project supported by big money (Boeing, Capital One, AT&T and Chevron are corporate sponsors) and amateur enthusiasms. How could this be? Well, it’s relatively new, and even Ambrose was capable of cutting a few corners, it seems.
The entire bottom floor of the main building is a concrete slab on which sit a few war vehicles/vessels with no apparent connection among them, and at least one (the Higgins boat of all things) is a reproduction. A C-47 and a British warbird hang overhead. The look of the place is merely on a larger scale than the garage out back of the WWII training-camp museum we’d visited in the Florida Panhandle the week before, with dark corners and unused or oddly used space. To the right of the entry there’s a ‘40s-themed grill with overpriced sandwiches and the reek of fry oil, which permeates the museum, and a gift shop in which even a father desperate to buy for two sons he’d been separated from for too long couldn’t find anything suitable for purchase.
(I passed on propaganda pins; coffee mugs with the museum logo; troll dolls dressed as The Victory Belles, “a charming vocal trio who will take you on a nostalgic journey through WWII-era musical classic”; a poster of armed soldiers with the caption, “Attack on all fronts”; a stuffed gorilla in a sailor hat, both generic and poorly made; a Slinky you’d buy from Wal-Mart, packaged in a retro cardboard box; a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, titled “Forged in China Skies,” the artwork showing a fully detailed tiger’s head floating in the sky next to two Flying Tiger P-40s, a P-51 Mustang, and an A-10 Warthog for some reason; and a signed copy of MacArthur, by Richard Frank.)
A walk across a burning sidestreet leads to the museum’s “4D” theater, where “the exclusive Tom Hanks production, Beyond All Boundaries,” is playing. (Regular adult admission to the museum is $22; the film is an extra $5.) The theater was clearly a large effort too and has vibrating seats, fake snow that falls from the ceiling, surround-sound explosions that hurt the eardrums, strobes ruining our eyes to simulate flak and artillery bursts, and the nose of a bomber that lowers down from the proscenium arch. I was bored. Frenchy, who did two tours in Vietnam, fell asleep and stayed asleep through the whole thing.
Across another griddle-hot street there’s a PT boat (similar to JFK’s, which was famously cut in two and sunk) being restored, or rebuilt from scratch, really, in a large workshop. It was sort of interesting and gave me the chance for the first time to realize how large those boats were. But the elderly docent spent way too long talking about maritime basics such as port versus starboard, as if what all the lubbers who staggered through there really needed most was a bracing corrective to their ignorance. I was feeling churmish, no doubt of it, and after he started asking coy and leading questions about the dismantled heads [toilets, you horrible lubbers] lying in pieces on a shelf, awaiting restoration, I left in the middle of the tour.
The exhibits on the upper floors of the main museum building are full of artifacts and info. One hall is dedicated to the European Theater, the other to the Pacific, and both are dense and interesting. They’re also slow-going, since there are big and little signs covered with text everywhere you look, and little closets with video and audio of oral histories to sit through. The rooms were crowded and smelled of grilled cheese, and I was starting to feel as if I could sympathy-puke with Frenchy, who had left and walked downstairs to sit on a hard bench outside the only men’s room he could find. We didn’t pay to see the submarine exhibit and didn’t even have the desire left to visit The US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, to see another seven airplanes and to hear the story of “The Boeing Company Today: After the war, The Boeing Company returned to the business of transporting goods and passengers. The momentum from the war effort served to launch the company’s tremendous postwar advances…. Headquartered in Chicago, today Boeing is the world’s largest aerospace company and … continues to be an innovative leader in aircraft production, serving more than 90 countries around the world.”
It’s fun, especially when you’re a kid, to be caught up in the excitement of feeling that you understand history by visiting a top-flight museum. That sort of inspiration can lead to lifelong interests, even careers. I wouldn’t say any part of this museum experience was fun. What I mostly felt was sadness, but I don’t think it came from the associate's degree education promised. Yes, the museum offered a sense of what an incredible endeavor that war was, so many people involved, such destruction and loss—but it mostly emphasized how all of that is now behind a veil of time, gauzy and romanticized and not completely real. Scratch that: As unreal as morning cartoons.
Down on the concrete floor, near the ticket counters, an impromptu-looking sign announced that a real WWII veteran was onsite to tell his story. The old man was sitting in a folding chair at a card table, wearing his foreign legion cap, but no visitors were stopping to listen or even say hello. He’s one of only about a million WWII vets left, and they’re dying at the rate of 600 per day. Fifteen million are gone. My dad was one, my mom of that generation too. All those lost experiences and unremembered lives and deaths; even their descendants don’t and won’t know of them, despite all the ancestry.coms and DNA sequencers in the world. What do we really know about anything, even a war that tore up the world for a few years in the middle of a recent century?
Given my mood that day, I’d have said what’s the use anyway? We’re certainly not getting any wiser as a species. But knowledge has always been fragmentary, flawed, and hard to come by. (It’s what makes a book such as Memorial, by Alice Oswald, so moving; art is what’s left. Granted, you want your remainders of consciousness thoughtfully chosen and splendidly arranged.) Even when the NSA finally gets around to digitizing our every word and action, someone still has to put it all together. And how much can one museum, person, book contain?
So much of our knowledge comes from a distance. Deep down we understand those limitations: You had to be there, we say. I know that for every sentence of my last eight posts, in which I portrayed bits of our trip, there were hours of experience unrepresented, all the sights, the meals, the jokes, my muttering into a recorder, dozens of photos, plastic bins filled with brochures and newspapers. Two friends lives…conversation and laughter…a passage in finite time. Big deal. So what?
To work, he said cheerfully.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service, National Archives, Navy 80-G-258487.