Of the thousands of expertly displayed exhibits here at this incredible place, this one conveys to me the essence of the experience. A ten minute intro narrated by Tom Hanks puts the enormity of the events in perspective. It is entitled “Beyond All Boundaries”, and those three words put you on notice that what happened in those nine years (we Americans lose track of the fact that Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 started the bloodletting that convulsed into a truly World War) was beyond all human experience heretofore, and we can only hope, forever after. The numbers become so staggering as to soon lose comprehension. The ultimate litmus test of horror is the number of deaths directly attributed to the war, both civilian and military. Sixty-five Million. Even writing the number down seems to make it more of a “fact” than the stark reality of what it really means. There were one hundred and twenty eight million people living in America in 1940. Every other person would have died. That’s what sixty five million dead would look like.
The point I am trying to convey with this introduction is that this place is not a glorification of war or war making. It tells the stories of the men and women who lived through it. It shows the stupidity and ineptitude of not only the “bad guys”, but us, the “good guys”. And where heroism prevails, those stories are told in the light of the sacrifices made, and not in the jingoism of misplaced patriotism.
As an American, and a veteran, I can and did take pride in the way our country responded to the world calamity when we finally had no recourse except join in it. With a father who fought on the shores of France and a mother who spent 10 hours a day helping produce the munitions of war, I feel a kinship with these events. Our great country’s capacity to produce was as much of a factor in the eventual outcome of the war as the tenacity and skill of our Armed Forces in combat.
The skill, attention to detail, accuracy and descriptive information of all exhibits is world class. A majority of the museum is a walk through of the various campaigns with “like you were there” vignettes of what was happening at that moment in time. The audience is silent, though the crowds are shoulder to shoulder. It’s that kind of place. It doesn’t lend itself to lots of photographs. But it does burrow into your emotions and memory.
I have done more historical reading about this war than most. This center piece full length article from Life Magazine in late 1942 is a story well known to me. Red Oak, Iowa, is a relatively small town in south west Iowa. It’s Army National Guard Unit (part of the 34th, Red Bull division) was one of the first called to active duty after Pearl Harbor. They were part of Operation Torch, our countries first attempt at “fighting back”, with the Allied landings in North Africa. Using the term “disaster” for this operation, is being too kind. We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t have the right equipment or enough of it. We were out-gunned and out-classed by our German opponents. We suffered mightily from poor leadership, top to bottom. The only thing we did have was the unwillingness to quit. But, as you can deduce from this sobering article, that comes at a high cost.
It took the entire day to make it through the majority of the exhibits. We meandered through each “theater of war” from the invasion of China and Pearl harbor to the signing of the surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. We followed familiar and unfamiliar units as they slogged from North Africa to Sicily to Rome and beyond. We were appalled and numbed by the atrocities of the Nazis in war making and genocide. We were reminded yet again how easily a country can be swayed by its leaders spewing hate and division. We sadly watched gun camera reels of thousands of young men in their war machines plummeting to earth in flames, and just as sadly, the cities left in flames by their missions. The miles and miles of destroyed ancient metropolises in the silence of the finality of killing. We vicariously walked through the hundreds of acres of factory floor in Willow Run producing B24 bombers at the rate of one complete bomber every 63 minutes. (Though even here, human nature created inevitable problems: e.g. Henry Ford didn’t think women should be working on production lines.)
In summary, the Museum is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. As full of proud moments as moments of anguish. An essential addition to the education of us all. Hope you all can visit it some day.
Getting set to brave the early morning rush hour traffic of great New Orleans and “get back on the Southern Tier”!