- Historic Sites
The D-Day Museum
What do you need to build the only national museum dedicated to World War II? The same things we needed to fight the war it commemorates: faith, passion, perseverance—and a huge amount of money.
May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Another problem was the board. I knew nothing about how to form and lead a board, and I discovered that the members did not agree with me at all on the location. They wanted the museum in the heart of town, within walking distance of the Convention Center, the French Quarter, and the other museums—such as the Children’s Museum, the Southern Art Museum, the Confederate Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center—all placed around or near Lee Circle on St. Charles Avenue. I insisted that it had to be on the campus and lake. We had a film of Higgins testing his LCVPs there, film donated by the Higgins family. But my site was a long way from the tourist attractions in New Orleans. For two years I fought. Relationships were ruined. The members of the board kept telling me that the museum wasn’t just a case of “if we build it, they will come.” It took me a long time, but reluctantly I learned that I was wrong and they were right. Eventually we purchased an abandoned brewery building in the Warehouse District, on Magazine Street, and told Masey and MetaForm to start over.
Nineteen ninety-four came and went. Still, a couple of good things had happened. First, we held a reunion for workers in Higgins Industries. Thousands came, partly out of loyalty, partly because I had persuaded the late Al Hirt to bring his trumpet to the occasion and play the national anthem for us. Hirt did so out of loyalty; he had worked for Higgins and played in the Higgins band. He was a teenage New Orleanian at the time, and that was his first musical job. Second, the hoopla surrounding the fiftieth anniversary put me on NBC’s “Today” show as part of a daylong program with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, telecast from Omaha Beach. The event brought D-Day into the nation’s consciousness. Third, my book D-Day, June 6, 1944 was a success, and for the first time in my life I had some extra money. I donated the royalties to the museum. That gave us two million dollars.
But there was no museum. The cost kept going up. Over the next few years many board members bailed out. We lost one chairman and then another. I never gave up on it, although I continued to make mistakes. In 1995 I confessed that the financing goals had not been met and continued to rise, to fourteen million dollars, and that we were far short of that sum. We pushed the opening first to 1997, then to 1998.
In asking for money, I kept running into older rich men who said their war was in the Pacific—which was true of nearly half the veterans—and thus they had no interest in contributing to a museum that would celebrate the Normandy invasion. I came to realize that if we wanted them to be involved, we had to include the Pacific landings. That was my best decision. It revolved around two things: D-Day was a term used not just for Normandy but for every invasion of the war, and the LCVPs had been instrumental in all of them. So we added the Pacific islands, plus North Africa, Sicily, and Salerno, to the museum, which greatly increased our audience and our list of potential contributors. Further,we did not have to rename the National D-Day Museum but only to educate the public that there had been many D-Days in World War II.
The decision to add the Pacific war to the museum led me to ask Gen. James Livingston, USMC retired, to serve for a couple of years as chairman of the board. He agreed, and he was perfect for the job. As the costs mounted, he went hard-charging for more private and public funds. We got an additional two million from the U.S. Congress. We also went to Baton Rouge to ask the state government to help out. There is nothing like walking onto the floor of the Louisiana legislature with General Livingston. He is the last Marine to be a recipient of the Medal of Honor, in Vietnam, and the members of the legislature, like all Americans, damn near swooned to be in his presence. He got two million from the legislature, and with Doug Brinkley, the new director of the Eisenhower Center, helped persuade Tim Forbes and the Malcolm Forbes Foundation to donate another million dollars.
When General Livingston had finished his two-year term, the board elected Nick Mueller as his successor. Nick has done wonders in both the private and public sectors. Among many other things, he went back to the legislature for more funding. He knew that the politicians from outside the area had little interest in putting even more money into a New Orleans museum, so he decided to bring the rest of the state into it by building a Louisiana pavilion alongside the museum to honor all the men and women of the state who had participated in the war. That worked, bringing in another four million dollars.