I leaned in close, peering at the grainy black and white pictures of the shaven heads, taunt faces and ultra skinny frames of the just freed Holocaust victims. Tears slid silently across my face. You didn’t have to wonder what these survivors thought of the American soldier!
The World War II Museum in New Orleans is not so much a string of exhibits as it is an “experience.”
We arrived with the sun so as not to miss a thing. My friend laid his veteran card on the counter and they near ’bout saluted thanking him for his service and immediately waived his admission fee. I’m telling you, it didn’t cost him one penny to get in! And he didn’t even mention his time in Vietnam: or his Green Beret, his Combat Infantryman Badge, his Paratrooper Wings or the Bronze Star.
When they discovered that I had never served a day in the military, they were still nice but I didn’t exactly get the same treatment.
AND I SHOULDN’T HAVE! So much gets blurred in our hurry up, it’s all about us, let the good times roll society….it’s easy to forget that citizen soldiers like my friend paid their admission price at Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, the Argonne Forest, Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Pork Chop Hill, Khe Sanh, Iraq, Afghanistan…..
They charged me the full admission fee.
AND THEY SHOULD HAVE! I ought to be paying something. It’s always been a one way street for me. I have received every blessing America has to offer…..without lifting a finger. I never left a wife and baby to take an Uncle Sam mandated trip abroad. I’ve never eaten a K-ration. Slept in a leaky tent in a hostile land. Stormed a fortified beach.…
If you are wondering how a museum can be an “experience” let me give you one example. When their extraordinary movie on World War II got down to the Battle of the Bulge, the last ditch counteroffensive by the Germans in the freezing cold of December, 1944—it started snowing inside the theater!
When we walked by the Battle of the Bulge exhibit later in the tour, I swear to you, the temperature dropped twenty-five degrees as we huddled around picture after picture of determined GI’s fighting across the frozen ground. Uncle Clifford was wounded in this battle. He never talked about the shrapnel that ripped through his body. But he did mention that he had on seven shirts when he got hit.
The Museum is an invaluable step back in time. It is authentic and unfiltered. The Life Magazine picture of the three dead soldiers on Buna Beach published in September of 1943 was prominently displayed. It was a stark reminder then, and now, of the eternal silence….even amidst the roar of the cannons.
They didn’t just have original uniforms on display. They gave you the name of the soldier who wore it. They told his story. Some ended with a safe return to family and friends, a victorious war hero. Many didn’t…..
I scanned the faces as if seeking an old buddy. I looked closely at the M1 Garand or the Thompson machine gun cradled casually in a hand or thrown over a shoulder. I read letters they’d received from a mom or girlfriend back home. I read the last letter some of them ever wrote.
I looked up the one hundred foot cliff at Pointe du Hoc and wondered if I could have made that climb with the Army Rangers under the unrelenting fire they faced on D-Day. My mind raced eight miles east to Omaha Beach. You’d think it crazy to storm such a fortified position under any circumstances! You want someone to remember and honor on this Memorial Day, how about the twenty-five hundred Americans who paid the ultimate price on that damp, dismal June 6, 1944, morning.
We were looking at medals on an Eisenhower jacket when I asked my friend how he “got” his bronze star. He gave me that far away look that only a combat soldier knows and replied, “Mostly for just being over there.”
That’s what they all say.
I will tell you the one thing I did not see in the full day we spent at this special World War II remembrance: A WORLD WAR II VETERAN. If we are going to thank any of them for their service to our nation, we’d better get to doing it! In a hurry!