If you’re planning a journey to the Crescent City, devouring blackened catfish at the Commander’s Palace or digging jazz licks at Preservation Hall should be high on your to-do list. I’d also suggest adding the National WWII Museum to your New Orleans itinerary.

Originally named the “D-Day Museum” it was founded by the late University of New Orleans historian and author, Stephen Ambrose. It was an instant hit but the WWII vets who attended and fought in other theaters of war wanted their stories to be told as well. Among them, were the late U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye (who fought in Italy) and his longtime friend on the opposite side of the isle, Ted Stevens (who served in the China-Burma-India theater). The two ginned up government resources to expand the museum’s scope and it was renamed National WWII Museum.

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National WWII Museum complex in New Orleans attracts over 50,000 visitors a month

Today the National WWII Museum attracts over 50,000 visitors a month, and is in the midst of a $370 million capital expansion project that will quadruple the size of the original facility.

Painted in steel grey, there are four buildings (not including one under construction) which impose themselves like modern day megaliths in downtown New Orleans. Jam-packed with exhibits that explore every aspect of the conflict from life on the home front to the Road to Tokyo, the curators do a magnificent job conveying the zeitgeist—the spirit of the times–that touched every American during the war years. This is done with countless artifacts that you’d expect to see in a museum such as Garand Rifles, M2 60mm mortar rounds, uniforms, jeeps, artillery, a Sherman tank and even a C-47 transport plane suspended from the roof.

The museum also deploys audio/visual technology that confront the visitor at every turn of the winding exhibit space such as a barrage of videos that illustrate decisive events such as the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Overlord (the D-Day invasion).

Although epic encounters of armies and navies are exquisitely recounted in videos, the museum masterfully weaves audio interviews of veterans (accessible from touch screen panels along the corridors) that bring very personal points of view to the visitor.

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The Museum leverages interactive digital technology to the max

In one interview, entitled the “Senselessness of war” a former American soldier narrates the story of a young boy he observed pick up a hand grenade that he discovered on the roadside, and subsequently pull the pin. Predictably the grenade exploded and the boy was gravely wounded. The solider tells how he scooped up the child, and flagged down a jeep. They made their way to an Army doc but the boy was too far gone to be saved.

More detailed stories of veterans and others who served during the war are featured with an innovative technology called the “Dog Tag RFID” which allows guests to follow the individual sagas of 50 people drawn from the Museum’s vast archived interviews. Guests begin their interactive journey on a digitally engineered 1940’s Pullman car which recreates the “leaving home for war” experience by simulating a cross-country journey. By swiping the credit card sized “Dog Tag” the visitor can follow the individual’s service from theaters of war ranging from the North African desert to the jungles of Guadalcanal.

The Museum should be commended for not sugarcoating or glorifying WWII like some John Wayne movie. Whether it’s the brutality of the Rape of Nanking, the scarred landscape of Dresden after a firebombing by Allied planes or the emaciated corpses of concentration camp victims, the museum’s narrative is blunt and frank.

The curators also do an excellent job reminding us that Americans of all backgrounds contributed to the war effort.

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There are exhibits that cover every theater of war, from the deserts of North Africa to beaches of Normandy.

Among the mix of ethnic groups, several displays and videos chronicle the ordeals endured by Americans of Japanese Ancestry, both on the battlefield and on the home front. In this vein, the museum’s website features a 1944 yearbook photo of Ruth Kambara, a coed from Rohwer Center High School. At first glance, she appears to be like any mainland high school girl until we learn that she was educated at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in McGeehee, Arkansas, which was created for the children of AJAs who were forced from their West Coast homes and required to live behind barbed wire for the duration of World War II.

There’s a huge amount to digest and at day’s end you’ll experience a sensory overload from the sounds of gunfire, bombs and other detonations that fill the soundscape in nearly every square foot of the museum.

For local visitors the museum offers a superb way to understand Hawaii’s role in the context of World War II and how it’s influence shapes life in our islands to this very day.

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National WWII Museum Programs come to Oahu

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The Museum explores the personalities that dominated the era.

This December the National WWII Museum will bring two ambitious programs to Oahu to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Collaborating with public television stations PBS Hawaii and WYES in New Orleans, student reporters from Hawaii and the Mainland will produce a live webcast to be aired on December 7th designed for middle school students and teachers around the country. PBS Hawaii will produce segments with the reporters (including a student from Kaiser High School) from locales such as the USS Missouri, the Pacific Aviation Museum, Punchbowl, Roosevelt High School and other locations. In addition to the reporting from Hawaii student reporters will be adding to the mix with commentary from galleries and exhibits at the Museum.

The broadcast will combine both the pre-recorded video segments with live reporting. “Student reporters will be guiding and leading the show”, said Chrissy Gregg the Museum’s Virtual Classroom Coordinator. “Our main goal is to connect the students from 2016 to the events of the war as it played out in Hawaii.” Gregg said PBS Hawaii will be crucial in “helping us both produce the Hawaii segments as well as the storyline and scripts.”

For information on the Museum’s educational projects visit http://www.nationalww2museum.org/learn/education/index.html?referrer=http://www.nationalww2museum.org/visit/beyond-all-boundaries.html

In collaboration with Hawaii Pacific University’s Pacific Academy Program, a month long summer course focusing on WWII in the Asia Pacific, the Museum will also host a symposium on December 2, followed by a four-day tour of the historic venues on Oahu associated with the Dec 7 attack.

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There are a number of WWII vets who serve as volunteers at the Museum.

Participants in the symposium will include WWII veterans and four preeminent historians who will lead the discussions. The symposium will explore the “Road to Pearl Harbor”, said Jeremy Collins, Director of Travel & Conference Services at the Museum. Discussion points will include the historical context leading to the war such as Japanese aggression in Manchuria, China and Southeast Asia. The event will be hosted at HPU’s Aloha Tower facility.

Approximately 100 guests from around the nation as well as HPU students and faculty will participate in the symposium.

For more information on the tour and symposium visit http://www.ww2museumtours.org/home/

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NATIONAL WWII MUSEUM Factoids:

» Where: 945 Magazine St. (entrance at Andrew Higgins Drive), New Orleans

» Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Closed Mardi Gras Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas.

» Admission: $24; $20.50 ages 65-79; $14.50 ages 5-12 and active military.

» Information: 504-528-1944,www.nationalww2museum.org

» Dining and entertainment: The main museum building contains a counter-service cafe with oversize hot dogs, sandwiches and there’s a full-scale restaurant, The American Sector, across Andrew Higgins Drive. The restaurant has a bar flanked by banquettes complete with glamorous black-and-white portraits of wartime USO stars. The restaurant is in the building that houses the theater for the Tom Hanks produced-and-narrated 4-D film

“Beyond All Boundaries”. Tickets are $5 for if you’ve purchased a general admission ticket.There’s a huge amount to digest and at day’s end you’ll experience a sensory overload from the sounds of gunfire, bombs and other detonations that fill the soundscape in nearly every square foot of the museum.

For local visitors the museum offers a superb way to understand Hawaii’s role in the context of World War II and how it’s influence shapes life in our islands to this very day.

Photos courtesy of WWII Museum and Rob Kay

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