New Orleans D-Day museum to open on June anniversary

Native son who designed key assault boats served as inspiration


WASHINGTON -- Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower once told Stephen Ambrose, the military historian, that the man who won World War II never fired a shot, planned an attack or sewed up a wound. He built boats, and one of them was a revolutionary design that made possible amphibious landings such as the one at Normandy on June 6, 1944.

Without boats built by Andrew Higgins, "the whole strategy of the war would have been different," said Eisenhower, who commanded the invasion of Europe.

So when Ambrose decided to create a World War II museum, he put it in Higgins' hometown, New Orleans. The historian lives nearby in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

And one of the museum's prominent displays will be a replica of a Higgins boat: shallow and flat- bottomed with a protected propeller and shaft. Higgins Industries sold the boat before the war for use in the swamps and marshes of Louisiana, where Higgins would impress customers by running the boat onto the sea wall of Lake Pontchartrain. The military version could land 36 men, or 12 men and a jeep, and extract itself from the beach for another shuttle run.

On June 6, the anniversary of the Normandy invasion, the National D-Day Museum will open, telling the story of the war with special attention to the major amphibious assaults undertaken by Americans in the war, including Pacific engagements such as Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal and Okinawa.

"We are using the Higgins boat as a symbol for the enormous effort that our people made during the war, building landing craft, rifles, aircraft, bombs," Ambrose said.

The museum is opening as World War II is drawing a lot of attention in the United States, through movies and best-selling books.

Museum officials say they expect the opening to draw the largest gathering of World War II veterans in America.

"The idea is to bring the whole story to life with personal accounts," said Nick Mueller, the chairman of the museum.

To help achieve that, nine oral history booths will be spread throughout the museum.

Visitors will be able to stop and hear recordings of people involved in the war describe what they experienced, on the battlefield and at home.

The accounts will be taken from the more than 1,400 oral histories that Ambrose collected while researching his book "D-Day" (Simon & Schuster, 1994). The Eisenhower Center, which is a branch of the University of New Orleans and the research arm of the museum, is complementing those histories with the testimonies of veterans from the war in the Pacific.

Artifacts will combine with the oral history booths to help connect the visitors with those who participated in the war.

As an example, Mueller described the story of Leo Scheer, a medic from Indiana, and the web belt that carried his medical supplies. After coming ashore at Normandy, Scheer discovered that all of his supplies had been ruined by sea water. So he searched through the bodies of his dead comrades for their first-aid pouches, and stuffed them into his belt. The belt, with six pouches hanging from it, will be on display at the museum. Louisiana has contributed $6.7 million and the federal government $6 million. Private donations are being raised to pay for the rest of the $25 million cost of construction.

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