When I think of New Orleans, the associations that spring to mind are jazz music, gastronomic decadence, and what looks to a sympathetic outsider like the eternal process of recovery from Katrina. It’s a place I’d visit with friends but not my parents or kids, since so much of the magic takes place in bars and clubs, and late at night. I once attended a three-day wedding weekend there that was such bacchanal that by the time the actual wedding reception came around, the guests slumped at their tables, already sleeping it off.
So when a friend who grew up in the city heard I was headed to New Orleans for work last year and insisted that I visit the National World War II Museum, I thought she was kidding. Seriously? Go to New Orleans and spend my free time in a history museum? And why is it there anyway?
She was dead serious. “You should go to New Orleans JUST to go to the museum. You could spend a whole weekend there.”
It so happened that the museum was situated on the walk between my hotel and the convention center, and after three days of breathing canned Convention Center air I finally figured it was worth a gander.
I want to tell you, my friend undersold it. The museum is massive, divided into sections for the Pacific and European operations, and after almost three hours I’d only seen the Pacific side, and that at a brisk trot. Maps, videos, letters from soldiers, and the things they carried – all of it brought to life the bravery of the troops and the unwavering support on the home front. The Stage Door Canteen across the street houses a theater where acts in the spirit of the war era perform and, my local friend assures me, the bartenders offer the most generous pours in the city.
Why New Orleans? Because it’s the city where the landing craft used in the amphibious invasions were built, the ones which President Eisenhower credited for winning the war for the Allies.
When I first entered the museum, a docent approached me and offered a tour of one of those landing craft, which are strewn around the massive lobby like a giant was using them to play Battleship. The docent was an old man, wearing the insignia of his army unit, and I asked where he’d served. He named a couple of fronts in Europe and then added casually, “Oh, and also the Battle of the Bulge.” Anyone who saw the HBO series Band of Brothers will understand that I immediately thought: Episode 7. Eugene the medic. Exploding trees. Sgt. Guarnere.
I tried to thank him for his service in a speech memorable only for its utter lack of coherence. I was prevented from further embarrassment by the arrival of another elderly docent, from another branch of the Armed Forces, because the two of them began to rip each other a new one over whose branch was better. “We knocked ’em down so you could waltz right in behind us, safe as houses,” was the general topic of debate.
Everywhere I went in the museum, elderly vets in wheel chairs were being pushed along by younger family members, commenting on the exhibits and nodding in recognition at this type of gun or that particular tin of MRE. The museum doesn’t shy away from controversial topics – displays of propaganda designed to help soldiers discern the difference between Japanese soldiers (enemies) and Chinese soldiers (friends) is jaw-dropping in its racism, and the internment of Japanese American citizens gets due treatment as well.
My tear ducts have always been overactive, and maybe it was the convention food diet. But I must have cried 17 times walking through the museum, particularly when I thought: someday, none of the docents or visitors who served in this war will be here to answer questions with, “Well, when I was there…”. And then: we are surrounded in this country by vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s a struggle for them to get adequate health care and support, let alone the type of forward thinking help that the G.I. Bill represented for WW2 vets.
I can’t urge you strongly enough to make the time to go to this museum if you can, and to do it soon while you can talk to the men and women who were there. I’m hoping to return myself to visit the half that I missed – and I’d take both my parents and my kids to do that.
And on this Veteran’s Day, I’ll also invite you to show your support and gratitude for the veterans of the Middle East conflicts by making a donation to one of the many fine organizations that are helping them when they come home: IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) is a good one, or the USO.
Because you shouldn’t have to wait for a museum to be built, or Stephen Spielberg to make a movie, for your courage to be recognized.