The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana is now the third most visited museum in the United States. The attraction has become one of the most popular in the Big Easy and its expansion continues. I’ve been going there since well before hurricane Katrina when the place was still being called the D Day Museum. At that time it was dedicated mostly to the big event when the Allies first reclaimed French territory from the Germans. The site of the museum was chosen because it was a New Orleans manufacturer who had designed the Higgins boats that were used in the assault on Normandy.
I’ve found something new every single time that I have walked through the exhibition halls. On one occasion I concentrated on understanding the geography of the battles. In another I was most interested in the timing of battles and the equipment used by each side. In my most recent visit I found myself mostly thinking of the human aspect of World War II and in truth it was my most moving encounter yet.
Each person who comes to the museum is given a “dog tag” that outlines the personal story of someone who participated in the war. As each guests moves through the displays there are opportunities to scan the dog tag to learn what part their person played in the era. Since there were five of us in our party on this occasion we got a wide spectrum of interesting histories, including the record of James “Jimmy” Stewart, the lovable actor that we all know from some of Hollywood’s greatest hits.
My dog tag belonged to a young American girl who was living in the Philippines when the Japanese overtook the island. Her father was in the military and had been sent elsewhere but her mother was a teacher who felt she must stay at her post. The Japanese sent the young girl and her mom to a kind of concentration camp along with countless others that they deemed untrustworthy. Life in the camp was difficult for a child and the girl remembered how frightened she felt when her mother became ill and was sent to a hospital. She was all alone in dealing with the horrific conditions. She spoke of eating gruel for virtually every meal and being set to work with only a minimal amount of time for education or play.
One of my grandson’s drew the Jimmy Stewart dog tag and we learned that Jimmy had been an actual hero in the war. When he first signed on Louis B. Mayer did everything to keep him from going into battle because Jimmy was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood. Jimmy nonetheless insisted that he wanted to serve the country and soon enough was leading squadrons on air raids that helped to turn the tide of war.
Another dog tag belonged to a Marine who won countless medals for bravery. His feats were almost unbelievable. We expected to learn that he had been killed but in fact he went on to serve with honor and distinction in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before retiring from the military.
Yet another of our stories was of a man who had been in the OSS, a precursor of the CIA. He did some of the most audacious things imaginable and somehow his luck held out even when he probably should have been captured or killed. He was incredibly brave for sure.
What really caught our attention were the telegrams informing families that one of their loved ones had died. We realized that there were people who saved those horrific notices for all of the years since the war, sometimes along with sympathy cards. It was beyond touching to see how dear those lost in battle had been to people back home. It made me think of my mom’s fiancé who died in the battle for Saipan. It was hard for her to speak of him even years after. Even though she had found love with my father she never completely forgot the man who had first asked her to be his bride.
All of the sacrifices that entire populations across the world endured became so real as we listened to the voices of survivors and gazed at the items and photographs that had been so intimately tied to them. We felt one touching moment after another as we looked at the images of young men who were fighting in the war when they were as young as my grandsons. It had to have been an incredibly difficult and frightening time across the globe. The sheer humanity of learning that the world lost more souls in World War II than in any other conflict in history moved me to tears.
I suppose that the museum is dedicated not just to providing facts about the war but also to helping us to understand the enormity of what was happening and its impact on everyone from the boy next door to a major movie star. So many of those who were alive during that fateful time are slowly leaving this earth. It is important that we remember their stories and their sacrifices. The National World War II Museum is insuring that we will not forget.