Our faces turned towards the surface, and the thick darkness came to surround my fellow shipmates and me. The explosion had shocked us all; moments before, our mission had been going according to plan.
We’d sliced through the water efficiently, following the directives of our commander. The missiles from our submarine had hit their targets, and the burning of the enemy ships lit up the night sky. But something had gone wrong, and now we were sinking, the once-flashing lights of our vessel now dead. Our final mission was complete.
If this museum has a thesis, it’s that WWII helped shape modern America.
What first strikes any visitor to the National World War II Museum is its immersive nature. Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience, an interactive, simulated recreation of the last days of the famous U.S. sub that sank 33 enemy vessels, is just one example of how that plays out in the museum.
There’s also Beyond All Boundaries, the famous, award-winning 4-D short film produced and narrated by Tom Hanks, which through a barrage of stimuli attempts to represent the complex web of war. I had heard a great deal about the film, and it left me stunned — it’s definitely not to be missed.
In fact, the entire museum and its vast breadth of content is worth exploring in depth.
Exhibits at a Glance
The sense of immersion at the National World War II Museum comes through in all the details that make up the museum, from the micro to the macro: an autographed photograph of the Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri (the ship named to honor the home state of President Truman); display cases featuring the minutiae American soldiers carried to war (including, for example, foreign language phrase books); the Oral History Database, where one can watch and listen to veterans talk about their WWII service; the large touch screens in the U.S. Freedom Pavilion that allow you to explore all the angles of various warplanes; the traveling exhibit, “Fighting for the Right to Fight,” which focuses on the role of African Americans in the war and their struggle for racial equality in the military; the over 19,000 square feet of exhibit space in the Campaigns of Courage Pavilion, where one floor is dedicated to the the Allies’ Road to Berlin while another focuses on the Pacific theatre of war with the Road to Tokyo.
The sheer ambition of the National World War II Museum is undeniable: it’s a clearcut attempt to capture the American experience of a war that spread out across the globe and altered the course of humankind. Moreover, the word “national” is very important in regards to the design and execution of the museum.
If this museum has a thesis, it’s that WWII helped shape modern America. A bloody, international rupture that left European and Asian metropolises flattened and tens of millions dead is tied to many aspects of change in America during the twentieth century: industrialization and the growth of American cities; the Civil Rights movement; the place of women in the workplace; and, ultimately, this country’s connection to other nations around the world. The museum reflects much of WWII’s effects on those social and economic dynamics.
But there’s also an important New Orleans factor: the museum is located in this city because of Andrew Higgins, a man who Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower once called “the man who won the war for us.”
Higgins, a local industrialist, and his 30,000 employees here in New Orleans built more than 20,000 “Higgins boats“—the vessels that took American troops to shore in every single amphibious assault during World War II.
There’s a gallery space in the museum dedicated to Higgins and his company’s creation, and it is a powerful testament to the American ingenuity that was so integral to defeating the Axis powers.
So, with a place that offers so much, how do you “do” the museum? Michelle Moore, the public relations manager for the museum, says that the museum was created to “enable visitors to delve deep into an issue or glean the overall picture based on their preference.”
Quite simply, a museum guest could still have a deep and moving experience through the Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo alone, but you could also tackle the whole museum, including, for example, meeting with curators who “lead a program on the uniforms and equipment used by American and German soldiers during World War II,” Moore says. On one of my visits to the museum, I even was allowed to try on several items — the American gas mask was a personal favorite.
National World War II Museum Itineraries
If you have 1.5 hours
If you only have 1.5 hours to spend at the museum, I would suggest that you pick either the Road to Berlin or The Road to Tokyo. You can take your time in either of these dense, nuanced exhibitions, and you will then have time left to take a quick stroll over to the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center to check out the bombers and airplanes that are suspended over a beautiful indoor space.
If you have 2.5 to 3 hours
With 2.5 to 3 hours, you have more options. I would advise that you start with the exhibition that helps explain the origins of World War II and includes the aforementioned Higgins gallery, where you can see numerous documents, photographs, and other items that pertain to roots of the Higgins boat in NOLA.
Then, if you book your ticket in advance, you could check out one of the two multi-sensory exhibits: The Final Mission or the longer Beyond All Boundaries. They are very different exhibits, so this might be where your personal preference comes in: are you most interested in the specific account of the legendary USS Tang? Or are you more intrigued by an immersive conceptualization of total war?
You’ll also have time on the way out to check out the The Soda Shop, where you can indulge in a classic American milkshake.
If you have all day (and then some)
I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have a preference: this is the best way to do it. Even if you can’t do it all on one day, for $6 more you can come back the following day and check out what you missed the first time through.
You can take time to peruse all the exhibits and activities:
- U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center
- Campaigns of Courage: The Road to Tokyo and The Road to Berlin
- Traveling Exhibits: Fighting for the Right to Fight; Manufacturing Victory: The Arsenal of Democracy; Infamy: December 1941
- Louisiana Memorial Pavilion
- Kushner Restoration Pavilion
- Beyond All Boundaries
- Final Mission: The USS Tang Experience
- The Merchant Marine Gallery
- The Soda Shop
- The National World War II Museum Store
Should you take advantage of the $6 followup day, you can also add a Stage Door Canteen show to your itinerary. The theater features a weekly series of ’40s-inspired entertainment, showcasing the songs, style, stars, and spirit of the era. Select shows even offer brunch or dinner as part of the experience.
What’s more, there’s also a fantastic way to wrap up your day: The American Sector, a spacious bar and restaurant that has one of the best happy hours in the Central Business District. The American Sector, which is helmed by executive chef Eric Cook, draws on locally grown vegetables (including those from the next door “Victory Garden”) and meats and has all-American staples such as the shrimp and grits and the roasted chicken and biscuits.