- 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
In 1964, at former president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s office in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I met with him at his invitation to discuss my becoming one of the editors of the Eisenhower Papers and his biographer. Of course I agreed—I was then twenty-eight years old, teaching at the brand-new University of New Orleans, and was immensely flattered—and we had a daylong discussion on how I would go about it. At the end he said, “I see you live in New Orleans. Did you ever know Andrew Higgins?”
“No, sir,” I replied. “He died before I moved to the city.”
“That’s too bad,” he said. “You know he is the man who won the war for us.”
That was quite a statement, coming from such a source; my jaw dropped, and I must have looked as astonished as I felt. Seeing my expression, Eisenhower said, “That’s right. If Andy Higgins had not developed and then built those landing craft, we never could have gone in over an open beach. It would have changed the whole strategy of the war.” He explained that without the landing craft vehicle personnel (LCVP)—a flat-bottomed boat with a ramp that could run right into shore and discharge thirty armed men, turn around, and return to the transport for another load—the Allies would have had to take a French or Belgian port, something that was nearly impossible because the Germans had concentrated their defenses at those ports. Indeed, when the Canadians had tried it in 1942 at Dieppe, they lost an entire division without gaining one inch of continental Europe.
But because of Higgins, whose industries had built in New Orleans twenty thousand vessels, the Allies were able to go onto the beaches at Normandy, where the Germans never expected’them. In fact, nearly every American soldier who went ashore in World War II, whether in North Africa or Sicily or Salerno or Normandy or in the Pacific islands, did so in craft designed or built by Higgins in New Orleans. I came away from the meeting determined to do something in New Orleans to honor Higgins. There was no monument to him in the city, no school named after him, no street, nothing.
Over the next two decades I worked on Eisenhower’s Papers and his biography, then on Richard Nixon’s biography, then on other books, but I never forgot what Eisenhower had told me about Higgins. By the mid-1980s I was founder and director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. The center sponsored academic conferences, mainly on World War II, along with lectures and other events. We also collected oral histories from the men of D-Day. Meanwhile, I embarked on a history of the invasion, based primarily on those oral histories. I also got started on honoring Mr. Higgins.
One afternoon, over cocktails, I told my dear friend Nick Mueller, a fellow historian and then vice chancellor of extension at the university, that I had received numerous artifacts from veterans and added, “We must build a little museum to the men of D-Day, one that honors not only them but Mr. Higgins and the New Orleans work force that built the landing craft.” We could do it for a million dollars, I said, and have it open for the fiftieth anniversary in 1994. I said it had to be on the university campus; on Lake Pontchartrain, where Higgins had first tested the craft.
I knew nothing whatsoever about building a museum. Nick didn’t either, but he thought it was a good idea and encouraged me. He did say four million would be more like it.
Shortly thereafter I was invited to New York City to meet with Peter Kalikow, at that time the owner of the New York Post , who wanted to talk about World War II. After a long discussion he asked what I needed money for, because he wanted to make a contribution. I thought about asking for funds for the Eisenhower Center to sponsor conferences but instead, spontaneously, said, “For a D-Day museum.”
Kalikow asked, “How much?”
“Well,” I answered, “fifty thousand dollars would get us started.” He immediately wrote out a check.
We were off. The first thing I did was to get the directors of the Eisenhower Library and Museum, the Truman Library and Museum, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum to spend a weekend in New Orleans and tell me how to go about creating a museum. They were full of advice, nearly all of which we have followed, but their first and most insistent message was to go out and raise some money. That seemed easy enough, but it turned out to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.
We started with the United States Congress. Rep. Robert Livingston, whose district included the University of New Orleans, believed he could get four million dollars for us, which seemed to be enough. We thought that the board of the Eisenhower Center would be the agency to oversee and guide the project. We were wrong; Sen. Sam Nunn and others in the Congress were furious with the way Stanford University had spent money allocated to it and had sworn never again to give money to a university. So we created a new entity with its own board, the National D-Day Museum Foundation, separate from the university. We got the appropriation.
Arthur Davis was chairman of the new board. He is a famous New Orleans architect who built the Louisiana Pavilion for the 1984 World’s Fair. He had worked on the pavilion with Jack Masey of MetaForm in New York and the documentary producer Charles Guggenheim of Washington, D.C., and said they were the best. Both men were veterans of the war. I went to New York to meet Masey. He took me to the Ellis Island Museum, where he had designed the exhibits. Pointing to a pair of baby shoes that had come over to Ellis Island on an immigrant ship from Germany, Masey said that in museums “smaller is better.” I had visited lots of military museums and watched people turn away from an entire wall filled with rifles and had already decided that a single M-1 with a damaged stock and a story to go with it would make a much more compelling exhibit. Or a pair of boots with a hole in them, or a helmet with a crease, or other artifacts with stories attached to them, and so on. I knew at once that Masey and MetaForm were the designers we wanted. I went on to Washington to talk with Guggenheim and see some of his documentaries. Just as Davis had said, he was the best. We hired them both.
Together Masey, Guggenheim, and I went to Normandy to spend a week walking over the battlefield and talking about the invasion. On returning, Masey got to work on displays while Guggenheim began the movie to be shown in the museum’s theater. MetaForm designed a museum to be built on the lake; we liked it and were impressed by its layout and by the displays Masey and the architects were proposing. The cost had gone up, to ten million dollars, but we thought that could be handled. Guggenheim meantime was interviewing veterans and studying film footage. His final production, finished in 1994 and called D-Day Remembered , won an Academy Award nomination, and it is as outstanding as that nomination suggests.
To gather artifacts for Masey, I wrote to all the Normandy D-Day veterans I had interviewed, more than one thousand of them, to ask them to donate articles they might have. The response was encouraging. Ammo clips, canteens, a pack of cigarettes taken ashore at Omaha Beach, captured flags, a radio, and much else came in. Then McDermott International, whose CEO, Bob Howson, had become the chairman of our board, bought the entire contents of the museum in St.-Lô, Normandy, which was going out of operation, and had them shipped to New Orleans. They included a cement lookout post from Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, a Mercedes staff car, badly damaged jeeps, discarded bits of uniforms, broken weapons, and more, all authentic artifacts picked up on the Normandy beaches after the battle by French civilians.
As Masey and Guggenheim worked, I went after money, thinking mine would be the easy part. With the late Bill Colby, a friend and the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and, most important, a World War II veteran, I flew around the country to call on the moneymen of America’s biggest corporations, ones that had played a critical role in the war. I thought our arguments were persuasive. One was a line Eisenhower had written to his brother Milton in 1939, on the day the war began: “Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy.” Another was that D-Day in Normandy was the pivot point of the twentieth century. A third was the query “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” —which I thought would bring an immediate check from the corporations that had been involved in the struggle. And if not, having Bill Colby with me would be decisive.
We got encouragement and advice (“You guys should go see so-and-so”) but no cash. I learned that America’s corporations are interested in the future, not the past, and that New Orleans is a tough town to raise money in. Many thought we would never raise enough. Meanwhile, the cost of the museum had gone up again, now to twelve million dollars, and was still escalating.
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.
Saving Private Ryan provided another major boost. I was the historical consultant to the movie, and Steven Spielberg donated a large sum of his own money to the museum, along with part of the sales from the video of the film on behalf of his firm, Dreamworks. The star, Tom Hanks, also made a sizable contribution. So did Tom Brokaw. So did foundations and business leaders from New Orleans and elsewhere, who have donated eight million dollars since 1998.
We’ve raised twenty-one million so far from the public and private sectors. Still, it is no surprise that we must go on seeking money—at least another four million to complete the Pacific exhibit. What is a surprise is that we will have our grand opening on June 6, 2000. That is six years later than we originally announced, yet it is here. Of all the things I’ve done in my life, this is the one of which I’m proudest. By far.
I’m not going to try to describe the museum here. To appreciate it, people must come to New Orleans and see it. They will be involved in the interactive displays MetaForm has built; they can listen to the interview accounts of the veterans’ experience; they can admire and get on board an LCVP. And much more.
The museum exists to honor the men and women of America who made the D-Days of World War II possible. They are the ones to whom we all owe our freedom, or as Spielberg put it to me, the ones who put to an end the Holocaust and the Japanese death camps in Asia. It will be there throughout the twenty-first century. Nay, for longer. The only other successful invasion across the English Channel was in 1066. William the Conqueror commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry to honor that invasion. Today the tapestry draws hundreds of thousands to see it every year. That is almost a millennium. The National D-Day Museum is going to be there for that long too. During that time it will teach billions of young Americans that freedom doesn’t come free, that nothing can beat the fury of an aroused democracy, that teamwork always prevails, and that the virtues of dedication, patriotism, loyalty, and doing one’s duty will prevail forever.