For many, the stakes and the scale of World War II are hard to fathom. It was a war fought around the world, against powerful, determined regimes in Europe and the Pacific; some 65 million people died. And as the number of people who have actual memories of the war dwindle — as of next year, there will be fewer than 1 million living veterans — the mission of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans becomes all the more urgent.
This weekend, the museum is opening a new wing — part of a $325 million expansion — with new, interactive exhibits that it hopes will give visitors a better understanding of the ethical and emotional challenges people faced during the war.
"A lot of people take it for granted that we would've won," says Gordon Mueller, the museum's president and CEO, "but nobody was sure about that when the war started."
Mueller and his friend, the late historian Stephen Ambrose, founded the museum, which opened in 2000.
Construction workers and museum staff spent the past week adding the final touches to the new wing, also known as the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. One of its objectives is to show America's industrial might during the war.
According to Mueller, Americans knew the threats of World War II were real, and civilians and corporations came together to help.
"Bill Knudsen from General Motors and Don Nelson from Sears and all these major companies helped FDR and the military understand what was needed to mass produce planes and tanks and jeeps on a scale never ever done before," Mueller says.
But the museum also looks at how the war affected individuals.
The Young Japanese-American
The words "What Would You Do?" flash across huge screens where short films present different scenarios of the moral dilemmas people faced during World War II.
"It's now 1943 and you are a young Japanese-American," says a voice in one film. "You and your family and friends have been held in an internment camp for over a year."
"The United States interned thousands of Japanese-Americans," says historian and author Rick Atkinson, who serves as a consultant to the museum. "They were rounded up and put into camps. It was a disgraceful episode in our history."
According to Atkinson, as the war effort's need for manpower intensified, a special Japanese-American unit was formed.
"If you were a young Japanese-American and your parents and your family had been rounded up and put in a camp in Idaho or California or someplace and the conditions were austere, and you were treated as an enemy alien," Atkinson says, "would you volunteer to serve your country by joining one of these units?"
Or, the film asks, "would you refuse to join the Army, aiding a government that has forfeited your trust?"
Museum visitors will have to decide. They cast their votes and later find out what really happened.
The Army Photographer
In another scenario, you are a U.S. Army photographer at the liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau.
"And when the camp was liberated in April 1945," Atkinson says, "of course it was a horrible place."
A short film sets the scene: "You spot 40 boxcars by the side of the road. You stop and climb to the top of the cars to take a look. The cars are packed with dead bodies: Jews murdered by the Nazis."
"The photographer was given the assignment to shoot the liberation, and what he photographed was murder," Atkinson says.
The film continues: "Incensed by these unspeakable atrocities, some of the liberating American soldiers take German SS guards, line them up against a coal yard wall and shoot them, killing 17 and wounding many others."
"If you are that photographer," Atkinson asks, "do you then turn in the film that you have shot, or do you, knowing that it will show American soldiers behaving badly, do you destroy the film?"
Atkinson says all of these scenarios are grounded in history.
"And, of course, a real moral dilemma," he adds. "There's never a right choice. It's never easy and that's the whole point."
The USS Tang
The museum also wants visitors to get a sense of the tension and fear that millions of American soldiers felt, including at the moment of an attack. They've created what Mueller calls a "multisensory simulation" experience of the sinking of the USS Tang.
In October 1944, during a battle with Japanese ships, the submarine surfaced and fired a torpedo. But that torpedo malfunctioned and the vessel sank after being hit by its own ammunition.
The museum has recreated that final mission — along with a slightly larger replica. Inside the submarine, groups of visitors will reenact the event. Each person will be given the name of an actual crew member from the USS Tang and assigned a battle station.
"When that torpedo swings around and hits," Mueller explains, "this whole thing is going to jolt and is going to start sinking and you're going to sense that water's coming in and you're going to feel that blow and that you're going down."
When it's over, visitors will learn what happened to each crew member.
According to Mueller, "[Lt. Cmdr. Richard] O'Kane and others — a few others — were thrown into the water on the surface and a number of others escaped from the bottom using their Momsen lungs from 180 feet. Some died in the ascent. Nine survived in total [and] were taken to Japanese prison camps and tortured for the next year or so."
A Vivid History
By playing the role of an actual crew member or by confronting the ethical issues that arose, Mueller and Atkinson hope World War II will become more palpable to visitors.
"For young people in particular," Atkinson says, "World War II is increasingly as remote as the Revolution or the Peloponnesian War and this gives them an opportunity to understand it. It's very interactive. It's very vivid. Sometimes it's very disturbing."
The National WWII Museum isn't done expanding — two more buildings are scheduled to open over the next few years. In one planned exhibit, visitors will be given a dog tag and follow the journey of an actual participant in the war.
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