Publication Date

December 1, 2012

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

In just over one week, the National WWII Museum will celebrate the grand opening of the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. Highlights of this new pavilion include a Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress,” an SBD Dauntless, and an interactive submarine experience based on the last war patrol of the USS Tang in the Pacific Theater. This latest expansion dramatically increases the museum’s ability to tell the story of America’s involvement in World War II and is another milestone for this 12-year-old institution.

From a backyard conversation between founder Dr. Stephen Ambrose and current Museum President and CEO Dr. Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller in 1990, The National WWII Museum became a reality on June 6, 2000 when it opened its doors as The National D-Day Museum. Over the next twelve years, the museum would receive a congressional designation, survive Hurricane Katrina, and push forward on an ambitious expansion.

The roots of the museum’s New Orleans location were laid in the 1960s as Ambrose was interviewing Dwight D. Eisenhower. The former president and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe credited Andrew Jackson Higgins, the CEO of Higgins Industries in New Orleans, as the “man who won the war for us.” The 12,000 landing craft designed and built by Higgins Industries in New Orleans made possible the amphibious invasions of World War II and carried American soldiers ashore in every theatre and campaign of the war.

Through the years, as he researched a book on the D-Day invasion in Normandy, Ambrose had piled up donated World War II helmets and guns, along with oral histories. He needed a home for this prized, swelling collection. He also wanted to tell the story of a bold New Orleans entrepreneur whose plants built many thousands of landing craft that delivered Allied soldiers to hostile shores, making victory possible.

“I want to build a D-Day Museum, to honor Andy Higgins and to preserve the story of the great Allied invasion,” Ambrose said. Ambrose asked Mueller, a University of New Orleans colleague, if he would help. Mueller didn’t hesitate. “It’s the best idea you’ve ever had,” he said. “Let’s go do it.”

The original idea was for a small D-Day Museum to be located near Lake Pontchartrain and the University of New Orleans. Instead, the museum was invited to become a part of New Orleans’s downtown resurgence. A four-story, 70,000 square foot 19th-century warehouse became the museum’s home. The museum collection included about 5,000 artifacts with oral histories, posters, props, video and animation. “Nearly every artifact has a story connected to it, whether it be a hole in a helmet or a belt that a medic carried around with him as he treated the wounded on the beach,” Ambrose told CNN at the time.

The grand opening ceremonies were set for June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of the beach landings in Normandy. 10,000 World War II veterans attended, along with celebrities Stephen Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Tom Brokaw. Veterans such as Bill True spent the day telling their stories to reporters, visitors, and each other. True, a paratrooper who jumped on the night of June 5, 1944, recalled, “We could see the tracer bullets and anti-aircraft just outside the door. I still remember the startling feeling that people down on the ground were trying to kill me.”

The next year, on the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the museum opened its first major expansion with the D-Day Invasions of the Pacific gallery. The celebrations held from December 7–9, 2001 rivaled those of the grand opening. Thousands of World War II veterans, including 14 Medal of Honor winners, attended. A large crowd turned out to catch a glimpse of former President George H.W. Bush, who spoke and helped cut the ribbon on the expansion.

Veterans of the Pacific battles in particular welcomed the expansion. Peter Beninato Jr., a former marine sergeant who landed on Guam, remarked, “When people say D-Day they think June 6, 1944, but every two months or so we had D-Days in the Pacific. You didn’t hear as much about the Pacific as you did Europe, but now it’s all coming out and veterans appreciate it.”

The momentum continued. On July 30, 2003, just three years after opening, the museum welcomed its one millionth visitor and received a congressional designation as “America’s World War II Museum.” Mueller remarked that the designation was a tribute to Ambrose and said, “we are grateful to the entire Congress and for the leadership of Senators Ted Stevens of Alaska and Daniel Inouye of Hawai’i, who shepherded this resolution in a bi-partisan way.”

Even bigger expansion plans were underway in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flood threw the future of New Orleans and the museum into flux. The museum escaped the flooding, but its future depended upon the return of tourism to the city. As a sign of commitment to New Orleans, the museum reopened after a 93–day closure to the boom of WWII artillery and the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd. A banner proclaiming, “We Have Returned” alongside an iconic photo of General Douglas MacArthur striding through the surf hung over the ceremony. Daily attendance struggled to reach half of the pre-storm total in the months following the reopening, but the museum embarked on a road of continued expansion to build momentum as the city recovered.

The museum’s board of directors vowed that “The Museum which portrays and celebrates the courage and fortitude of the WWII generation will play an integral role in rebuilding New Orleans.” The first step was a 2006 renovation of the museum’s original building, renamed E.J. Ourso Discovery Hall. This section of the museum houses the education department, a student resource library, a student resource center, and a virtual classroom studio. Tens of thousands of students nationwide now benefit from programs run from Discovery Hall.

To reflect its expanded scope and vision, the museum officially changed its name from The National D-Day Museum to The National WWII Museum in 2006. An ambitious $300 million expansion that would dramatically increase the museum’s footprint began soon after.

In April, 2007, site preparations began for a four new buildings. In 2009, the first stage of this expansion was completed with the Solomon Victory Theater, the American Sector Restaurant, and the Stage Door Canteen performance venue. The Solomon Victory Theater is the home of the Museum’s 4-D cinematic experience Beyond all Boundaries. The film combines archival footage with sensory elements to create an experience that is appealing and informative to all generations. The American Sector Restaurant, where classic American food is given a gourmet twist, is helmed by noted New Orleans chef John Besh.

The next stages of the expansion will occur rapidly between now and 2015. At the opening of the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center next week, visitors will notice that construction has already begun on both the Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters and the Liberation Pavilions. Campaigns of Courage will present the larger context of the war with an increased focus on North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the roads to Berlin and Tokyo. The Liberation Pavilion will focus on the closing months of the war and the immediate postwar years, connecting the lasting significance of the war to our lives today.


Andrew Jackson Higgins


New Orleans Entrepreneur Paves the Way for Amphibious Assaults

Stephen Ambrose wanted a museum in New Orleans to “honor Andy Higgins and to preserve the story of the great Allied invasion.” His vision is realized in The National WWII Museum.

New Orleans was home to Higgins Industries, a small boat company owned by flamboyant entrepreneur Andrew Jackson Higgins. Higgins rose to prominence among fur trappers and oil companies in the 1930s with his Eureka boats, which were able to traverse both shallow and open water. The boats featured a rounded bow, and could easily maneuver through and around obstacles. The boats could also run up onto a shore and reverse off with little difficulty.

With the realization that defeating Japan and Germany would require landing large amounts of troops on hostile shores, Higgins’ boats were suddenly in high demand. With some modifications, the Eureka boats were turned into wartime landing craft. His wartime craft included several types of amphibious landing craft, patrol torpedo (PT) boats, and supply vessels. He is best known for designing and manufacturing thousands of LCVPs—Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel—special craft designed to carry infantry platoons and jeeps to shore. The ramp in the front allowed the boats to be loaded and unloaded very quickly. These “Higgins Boats” were used in every major American amphibious operation in the European and Pacific theaters.

During the war, Higgins was competing with the more established shipyards of the Northeast. Higgins’ designs won him huge government contracts and his business expanded dramatically. In 1938, he operated a single boatyard employing less than 75 workers. By late 1943, his seven plants employed more than 25,000 workers. The Higgins workforce was racially integrated, a rarity for New Orleans in the 1940s. His employees included whites, blacks, men, women, seniors, and people with disabilities. All were paid equal wages according to their job functions. They responded by shattering production records, turning out more than 20,000 boats—12,500 of them LCVPs—by the end of the war. His achievements earned him countless accolades, but none was greater than the one he received from General Eisenhower. Higgins, Eisenhower said years later, “won the war for us.”

Nathan Huegen coordinates Louisiana's National History Day program and is a lead mentor on the National WWII Museum's Normandy Academy, which brings high school students to the shores of Normandy. He is also a member of the 2013 Local Arrangements Committee.