World War II Museum to Open in June


One of the museum's artifacts.


By, 26 March 2000

WASHINGTON, March 25 -- Dwight D. Eisenhower once told Stephen E. Ambrose, the military historian, that the man who won World War II never fired a shot, planned an attack or sewed up a wound.

He built boats, and one of them was a revolutionary design that made possible amphibious landings like the one at Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Without boats built by that man, Andrew Higgins, "the whole strategy of the war would have been different," said General Eisenhower, who commanded the invasion of Europe.

So when Dr. Ambrose decided to create a World War II museum, he put it in Mr. Higgins's hometown, New Orleans. The historian lives nearby in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

And one of the museum's prominent displays will be a replica of a Higgins boat: shallow and flat-bottomed with a protected propeller and shaft.

Higgins Industries sold the boat before the war for use in the swamps and marshes of Louisiana, where Mr. Higgins would impress customers by running the boat onto the seawall of Lake Pontchartrain. The military version could land 36 men, or 12 men and a jeep, and extract itself from the beach for another shuttle run.

On June 6, the anniversary of the Normandy invasion, the National D-Day Museum will open, telling the story of the war with special attention to the major amphibious assaults undertaken by Americans in the war, including Pacific engagements like Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal and Okinawa.

"We are using the Higgins boat as a symbol for the enormous effort that our people made during the war, building landing craft, rifles, aircraft, bombs," Dr. Ambrose said.

The museum is opening as World War II is enjoying a popular revival in the United States, through movies and best-selling books.

Museum officials say they expect the opening to draw the largest gathering of World War II veterans on American soil.

"The idea is to bring the whole story to life with personal accounts," said Nick Mueller, the chairman of the museum.

To help achieve that, nine oral history booths will be spread throughout the museum.

Visitors will be able to stop and hear recordings of people involved in the war describe what they experienced, both on the battlefield and at home.

The accounts will be taken from the more than 1,400 oral histories that Dr. Ambrose took while researching his book "D-Day" (Simon & Schuster, 1994). The Eisenhower Center, which is a branch of the University of New Orleans and the research arm of the museum, is complementing those histories with the testimonies of veterans from the war in the Pacific.

Artifacts will combine with the oral history booths to help connect the visitors with those who participated in the war.

As an example, Dr. Mueller described the story of Leo Scheer, a medic from Indiana, and the web belt that carried his medical supplies. After coming ashore at Normandy, Mr. Scheer discovered that all of his supplies had been ruined by sea water.

So he searched through the bodies of his dead comrades for their first-aid pouches, and stuffed them into his belt.

The belt, with six pouches hanging from it, will be on display at the museum.

The museum has received support from the state and federal governments, with Louisiana contributing $6.7 million and the federal government $6 million. Private donations are still being raised to pay for the rest of the $25 million cost of construction.


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov