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Live it up in New Orleans, but realize why it's possible

By DIANE STEINLE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 5, 2002

Perhaps because I am the mother of sons, I never enjoyed dwelling on the subject of war.

I avoid going to war movies. The Brotherhood of War book series is not on my reading list. On those rare occasions when I get the television remote in my hands, I don't flip immediately to the History Channel to watch that channel's seemingly endless retelling of military history.

What I know about the wars before Vietnam I learned in school classrooms or picked up by watching the news or interviewing veterans in my job.

So it was only because of the wishes of the males in my family that on a recent vacation to the City of Fun, New Orleans, I found myself spending a day in the somber National D-Day Museum. In that place, you cannot keep war at arm's length.

The museum opened on June 6, 2000 -- the 56th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France during World War II -- so there are many Americans who have not yet seen this national treasure. If New Orleans' music and food hold no allure for you, the D-day museum alone is worth a trip there. But be prepared for an experience that will stay with you.

Dr. Stephen Ambrose, a professor of history at the University of New Orleans, lobbied to create a national museum that would focus on the amazing story of D-day. He also pushed for it to be in New Orleans after learning that Dwight D. Eisenhower attributed the Allies' victory to Andrew Higgins, a New Orleans man whose factories built the special amphibious landing craft that delivered troops to the beaches on D-day. A Higgins boat is displayed in the lobby of the museum along with other military vehicles and aircraft.

We were still in the first-floor lobby when we realized that this museum visit would be special. We were looking at a glass case displaying the donated brown wool uniform and other gear used by a World War II servicewoman when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to find an elderly woman.

"I have a secret to tell you. That's me," she said softly, pointing in the case to a yellowed photo of a young woman in World War II military uniform. Then she walked away, a slender, erect figure with gunmetal gray hair and dressed, I noticed suddenly, in a brown wool uniform. Only then did I glance back at the photo of the young woman in the display and notice the unmistakable resemblance. I had an odd feeling that I had just stepped into history.

Ambrose wanted the museum to be a moving and personal experience for visitors. He hoped it would convey a message important to him.

"America sent her best and brightest to the beaches of Normandy, Sicily, Iwo Jima, and many other battlefields oceans away from her shores . . . not to conquer, but to liberate, not to loot or destroy, but to bring life and freedom," Ambrose wrote. "Like their soldiers, (Americans at home) worked hard and made sacrifices because they all believed in the righteousness of their cause. The National D-Day Museum celebrates the American spirit. But visitors will learn not just of what we have done. They will learn of what we can do."

The museum tells, in sometimes graphic detail that moves visitors to tears, the story of D-day, when 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded, and the other World War II invasions that led to the eventual victory by the Allies.

The experience begins with a viewing of D-Day Remembered, a 45-minute, Academy Award-nominated documentary produced by the museum. It sets the tone for the visits to four interactive galleries, where photographs, writings, recordings, artifacts donated by veterans, electronic maps and short films shown in darkened minitheaters relate the complex planning and buildup to D-day and the invasion itself.

There are nine oral history booths, where visitors can listen to recordings of D-day survivors telling their experiences in their own words. Perhaps because there are no distractions from photos or film in these booths, the survivors' stories seem especially chilling.

One of my favorite exhibits shows what Americans experienced at home during the war. How different life was then! So many sacrifices had to be made by Americans that the disruptions of life since Sept. 11 pale in comparison.

Children like a display that uses models of ships and planes to visually represent the invasion of Normandy by more than 5,000 ships and landing craft supported by about 11,000 airplanes. Another favorite for children is a section that shows the tricks the Allies employed, including inflatable military vehicles, to fool the enemy about where the invasion would occur.

The gallery called "D-Day: The Beaches" gets crowded as people slow down to study historic photos of the assaults on beaches with fearsome 100-foot cliffs, and the aftermath of the attacks. The gallery is quiet, though, as people whisper to each other or just stand and shake their heads in front of blown-up photos that do not, by any stretch of the imagination, romanticize war.

A new gallery called "The D-Day Invasions in the Pacific" opened late last year and details the many landings in the Pacific theater, using animated maps, newspaper pages, artifacts and sometimes gruesome photos.

You leave the D-day museum with a new appreciation of the enormousness of the challenge faced by a severely outmanned America as it entered the war, of the ingenuity of the military planners, and of the courage and suffering of the troops.

Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism have helped to change some Americans' previously jaded attitudes about military service and patriotism. I noted the difference during the recent Clearwater Fun 'N Sun Parade. Spectators who in past years would have been impatient to see floats and catch beads paused to applaud the veterans groups that marched by.

If you are feeling more patriotic these days, a visit to the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans will cement that feeling and leave you in awe of what America and its allies did to win World War II.

- Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the north Pinellas editions of the Times.

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