Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Experiencing the 1940s in New Orleans

Book research in New Orleans sounds like an excuse. Doesn’t it? 

I am currently in the smack middle of writing my second novel about World War II, so I needed a bit of a boost to spur me on to completion. Therefore the Big Easy was where I intended to receive this inspiration—and I did

The brand new U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center
The designated location was the National WWII Museum located at 945 Magazine Street in the city’s Warehouse District. I had visited the fantastic museum - formerly known as the D-Day Museum - once before about three years ago. 

German Wehrmacht's DKW NZ350 Motorcycle
Founded by historian and author, Stephen Ambrose, and opened in 2000, the museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn. 

Main entrance of La Memorial Pavilion
The campus includes the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, showcasing the large artifacts of the war and exhibits on D-Day at Normandy, the Home Front and the Pacific; the Solomon Victory Theater, a 4-D theater showing the exclusive Tom Hanks production, Beyond All Boundaries; the Stage Door Canteen, where the music and entertainment of the “Greatest Generation” comes to life; the John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion where staff and volunteers restore artifacts in public view; and the American Sector restaurant and Soda Shop - delicious onsite dining options by Chef John Besh. 

One of the WWII Poster displays
The first stop of my visit was to see the brilliant Beyond All Boundaries 4-D production, which took five years to complete and covers the entire war in under an hour. There are unbelievable graphics and props including a plane cockpit, guard tower, sliding screens that rise from the stage floor, simulated snowflakes and more. The experience is loud and bright, but it captures an essence of the war experience by using the touching and startling images and words of those who were there. It’s definitely a must see.

German gear
I next glanced at the gift shop and then wandered around the museum’s exhibits in the Louisiana pavilion. The entrance holds several U.S. and German weapons, vehicles and planes on display and the second and third floors are filled with artifacts, film clips, audio testimonies and various paraphernalia from the war, specifically of the D-Day landings at Normandy. I wish I had more time to explore. It would probably take two days to see everything.

Since I was running out of time, I made my final stop the museum’s newest and largest pavilion - The U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, which hosts a Sherman tank and six WWII-era aircraft, including the B-17 called “My Gal Sal.” There is also a display of WWII military branch uniforms and an interactive touchscreen display of WWII campaigns.

U.S. Sherman tank
The museum closed at 5 p.m. so I headed to the only place still open on the premises - The American Sector, a 40s style restaurant restaurant founded by acclaimed South Louisiana Chef John Besh. The hostess wearing a 40s ensemble showed me to a seat. The restaurant’s walls are covered with large black and white photos of 30s and 40s movie stars and music from the era wafts across the room. It is quite a fantastic atmosphere and the food is not only affordable but very good.

I ordered a classic Reuben sandwich filled with corned beef and sauerkraut on rye bread served with a side of the Sector’s homemade shoestring fries in a tin cup and a glass of the Apple Honey Sector Soda. It was great - just as it was the first time I ate there a few years ago.

I highly recommend a visit to the National WWII Museum, its facilities, restaurant and soda shop. Every exhibit was so fascinating and moving.

German & U.S. Infantryman gear of 1944
The 1940s is the most compelling era to me. There was so much pain and suffering across the world yet Americans stepped up and did the best they could to take part in the war effort from sending soldiers overseas and women working in place of the men to selling war bonds and rationing.

It was also such a time of great music between Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller, Ella Fitzgerald, among so many others. The people of the era seemed to really latch onto the music to keep their hopes up and for some kind of relaxation possible.

The comedic entertainers of the time such as Bob Hope and Red Skeleton played such a large role in remembrance of this era too as they would visit the troops overseas to help keep their morale up. The fashion and movie industry was interesting too with the creations of many of today’s classic styles. I wouldn’t necessarily say I would want to have lived then, but it is a time period I’d like to have seen first hand at least for a day.

For more information about the WWII Museum, visit their website at www.nationalww2museum.org.

Have you visited this museum or another great war museum? What is your favorite historical era and why? Please join the conversation below.

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