It stands to reason that in a city like New Orleans being the No. 1 tourist draw requires something special. Something special is exactly what the National World War II Museum offers those who visit it every year (nearly 700,000 in 2016).
Founded in 2000 as the D-Day Museum, it has expanded to include exhibitions such as the War in the Pacific, and most recently, the 32,000-square-foot pavilion housing the interactive exhibit, Campaigns of Courage, with its two main components “The Road to Tokyo” and “The Road to Berlin.”
I toured the latter, and just like on previous visits to this remarkable museum, I left agreeing with Tom Brokaw — who narrated part of the exhibition — that this was indeed “the greatest generation.”
Their equals will probably never be seen again — from the American bombers who today would be attending college frat parties, but who, in 1943, found their life expectancy was seven missions — to author Kurt Vonnegut whose time in a German prison camp inspired his most famous novel “Slaughterhouse Five.”
Film star Marlene Dietrich exhibited bravery of another sort. Adolph Hitler had put a price on the head of the German-born star after she defied his order to return to Germany, and throughout the war, she continued to thumb her nose at Der Fuhrer by traveling to Europe and North Africa to entertain Allied troops.
Just as important are the ordinary men and women whose extraordinary stories are told here. Each visitor is issued a dog tag with a man or woman whose story they can follow. Mine was Vicksburg, Miss., school teacher Dorothy Stout who, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, joined the Red Cross and was shipped to England in 1943.
I got to know Dorothy through her own words. Not only could she drive a double-clutch truck, she could also “make a wisecrack and talk to the GIs about everything from sports to Glenn Miller to homemade peach cobblers like their mothers made.”
The museum’s tableaus take you on a journey from the beaches of Omaha and Utah (I defy anyone to have a dry eye after reading war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s description of the D-Day invasion) to the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle in American history. Walking through, you can see snow swirling around you and almost feel the frigid cold.
As I was leaving, I came across a plaque with these words from infantryman Richard Proulx, “One cannot go to war and come back normal.”
Nor can one visit the National World War II Museum and come back unmoved.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.
If you go
National World War II Museum
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Where: 945 Magazine St., New Orleans
Admission: $26-$36 (depending on level of access) adults; $22.50-$32.50 ages 65 and older; $16.50-$26.50 students and military with ID; free for World War II veterans.