People flock to New Orleans to indulge in decadent food, nightlife, music and fantasy. Some are drawn to ghost and cemetery tours, others by the history and architecture of the French Quarter. However, the National World War II Museum is perhaps the least likely attraction you’d expect to find in New Orleans. And, perhaps the best. No beads, glitz or rolling good times – just honest storytelling about a horrifying war in the past. The WWII museum is a world class institution, one that deserves international fame. You’ll find it in the Downtown area just beyond the Ponchartrain Expressway. I felt honored to have spent a few a hours there. I suggest you make it a full day.

US Freedom Pavilion exterior

US Freedom Pavilion exterior

My Dad fought in WWII, but today’s Millennials have fewer connections to the war and their children are far removed. What is so important and special about this particular museum is the way it tells the story. They use the latest technologies in film and interactive displays in ways that appeal to all generations. The message is poignant and powerful: the emotional tale of countless struggles and lives lost battling for freedom. The museum brings the conflict to us in a way that promotes understanding and appreciation.

Beyond All Boundaries

Beyond All Boundaries

Enter the Solomon Victory Theater to see Beyond All Boundaries, a 4D journey through the war. Narrated by Executive Producer Tom Hanks, the experience is much more than sitting back and watching a movie. The dazzling effects literally shake you in your seat, snow falls on your head and a chill envelops your body. A large wraparound screen shows computer- generated imagery, moving sets and scenery, multi-layered environments and first-person accounts, from the trenches to the Home Front, read by Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Gary Sinise, Patricia Clarkson, Wendell Pierce and others.

When the show ended, I  had to remain in my seat and compose myself. If this presentation doesn’t bring you to tears, I suspect nothing will. I only wish everyone could see it.

Memorial Bricks

Memorial Bricks

The National WWII Museum in New Orleans first opened on June 6, 2000, as The National D-Day Museum. Founded by historian and author Stephen Ambrose, the Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world: why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today — so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.

Kushner Restoration Pavilion

Kushner Restoration Pavilion

In 2003, Congress officially designated New Orleans to be home of America’s National WWII Museum. Funding went through troubled times, but numerous fund-raising campaigns and corporate donations made it possible. Today you’ll find an array of buildings on the campus, including the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, showcasing the large artifacts of the war and exhibits on D-Day, the Home Front and the Pacific; the Solomon Victory Theater, the 4D theater showing the exclusive Tom Hanks production, Beyond All Boundaries; the Stage Door Canteen, where the music and entertainment of the “Greatest Generation” comes to life; the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion, where staff and volunteers restore artifacts in public view; The American Sector restaurant and Soda Shop offers delicious onsite dining options; and the new US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, where exhibits and interactive experiences paint the picture of a nation mobilized for war.

Road to Berlin

Road to Berlin

I toured the exhibit area (opened in December 2014) called the Road to Berlin in the European and Pacific Theaters pavilion. First I answered a few questions on a digital screen and received a credit-card like-dog tag for a soldier in the war. I followed his journeys by touching the dog tag to reader stations. I moved along through immersive galleries that recreated actual battle settings and villages —crumbling walls, bomb-torn rooftops, icy pathways where I could almost hear snow crunch under my feet, and a chillingly realistic soundscape. The museum includes period newsreels, video histories, interactive kiosks and tag-able digital displays that dive deeper into the story.

The result is a layered, multimedia experience that invites exploration and connection. I walked in the shadow of Normandy’s dense hedgerows; I went into a mission briefing with the Bomber Boys as they were planning air strategy; and I saw sentimental personal artifacts like items carried by GI’s in their wallets, pieces of jewelry, pin-up art and photographs scattered over real Normandy sand.The Road to Berlin is a whole new way to understand America’s story of the war in Europe, Africa and the Mediterranean and one I will never forget.

Unfortunately I did not have enough time to take in the highly regarded submarine encounter. Be sure to plan ahead for this site because it sounds extraordinary.  The website description reads:

Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience places visitors aboard the most successful submarine in World War II for its fifth and final war patrol on 25 October 1944. They relive the last epic battle of the USS Tang and feel a deeper appreciation for the bravery and sacrifice of those who served in the intense, confined world of underwater warfare.
The story of the USS Tang’s final mission is told in the context of the US Navy’s evolution of tactics in submarine warfare. Initiated with the USS Wahoo, then carried further by the Tang and her commander, Richard “Dick” O’Kane (who had served as the executive officer on the Wahoo), this new strategy employed dangerous, risky engagement with the Japanese on the surface of the ocean. The result was devastating losses to Japanese shipping. But with increased effectiveness came increased vulnerability and, for the USS Tang, a high ultimate cost.
Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience is intimate and personal — accommodating 27 visitors per “patrol.” Each will receive a “watch bill” representing a specific Tang crewmember and many will be “enlisted” to perform specific tasks to navigate through the battle. At the end of the experience, they will discover if they were among those lost or one of the few who, after a harrowing ordeal at sea, suffered on in Japanese captivity.

For aviation buffs (my Dad would have loved this) a stop in the Boeing Center is a must. See old B-17s and other iconic aircraft restored to their glory hanging from the ceiling. You learn about the assembly lines and how women at home played a part in the war effort.

I also missed the Museum’s vaults and artifacts such as Allied and Axis uniforms, weaponry, vehicles, medals, diaries, letters, artwork, photographs and other mementos. Some are on exhibit, but the majority are kept safely in storage to be used for research and future exhibitions, or are being restored to their original condition. The Museum has a large collection of memoirs of wartime experiences, as well as a collection of oral histories conducted with veterans from all branches who served on all fronts.

Learn more and listen into the Digital Collections here: http://ww2online.org/

Whether you’re planning a trip to New Orleans for cuisine, culture, arts or nightlife, make some time for the National WWII Museum. You should not miss this exceptional place of honor.

The Museum is open seven days a week. 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. Closed Mardi Gras Day, Thanksgiving, December 24 and 25th.

There is a free mobile App: THE NATIONAL WWII MUSEUM.

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Disclosure:  I attended a media sponsored trip to New Orleans in December 2014 which included a stop at the National World War II Museum. I can’t say enough about this museum.  I was personally overwhelmed and highly recommend it.

Photos courtesy of the National WWII Museum, except the Memorial Bricks and Road to Berlin by Debi Lander.