Vets Are Treasure Living History: Veterans Volunteer at National WWII Museum
Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters.
THE BACKBONE OF THE NATIONAL WWII MUSEUM, LOCATED ON SIX ACRES IN DOWNTOWN NEW ORLEANS, IS ITS CORPS OF VOLUNTEERS, who daily provide visitors from around the world with a unique experience. More than 400 volunteers—14 of whom are World War II veterans—devote thousands of hours each year to welcome and assist museum guests.
After being dedicated in 2000 as The National D-Day Museum, it was designated by Congress in 2004 as “America’s National WWII Museum.” Its mission is to “tell the story of the American experience in the war that changed the world—why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today—so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.”
And the 14 WWII veterans offer visitors the experience of hearing firsthand accounts of the war. These volunteers are “treasured living history,” captivating audiences with stories not found in books—at a museum “celebrating the American spirit, teamwork, optimism, courage and sacrifices of the men and women who fought on the battlefront and served on the home front.”
WWII veterans Forrest Villarrubia and Ben Martinez are stationed at the front entrance a few days a week and greet visitors—who are of all ages—as they walk through the doors. Villarrubia, a retired combat Marine, served in the Pacific Islands. Martinez, a retired combat Army medic, served in the Italian Campaign. Both spend their volunteer days sharing stories, showing old photographs of their service and proudly displaying the medals they earned during the war.
“There’s not many of us left,” notes Villarrubia. “I just love being here and talking to the museum’s visitors. Most of the time, they ask me where I was during the war and what I did. They seem to enjoy hearing my stories and I really look forward to coming to the museum.”
Elaborating on the museum’s mission is Sanibel Island resident and former U.S. Rep. James A. Courter (R-NJ), who served as the museum’s board chairman from 2016 to 2018: “I was on the Armed Services Committee during my entire 12 years in the United States Congress, resulting in my deep appreciation for the service and sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform over many bloody conflicts. When asked to join the Board of Trustees of The National WWII Museum in its early stages of development, I was honored to do so.”
What began in a rented warehouse in the industrial zone of New Orleans 20 years ago is now a $300 million campus that spreads over more than two city blocks. The museum is recognized as the “most accessible and trusted source of knowledge on America’s involvement in World War II,” Courter points out.
World War II was perhaps the greatest conflict in all of human history, a war involving 60 countries for six years, which took the lives of more than 56 million people. Yet there was a moral clarity to America’s efforts during the entire conflict.
“It was a time when America’s power seemed so unimpeachably right and just, when morality and power were perfectly aligned. The museum has the responsibility to tell that story, America’s contribution to freedom and democracy that was under existential assault, why America fought in World War II, how we won, and what that means today,” Courter explains.
Ranked by 2017 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards as the No. 2 museum in the world and No. 2 in the nation, it is one of the premier tourist destinations of all. Welcoming more than 6.6 million visitors since opening its doors, the museum presently spans five pavilions featuring several permanent exhibitions.
Included are The Arsenal of Democracy: The Herman and George R. Brown Salute to the Home Front, Richard C. Adkerson & Freeport-McMoRan Foundation Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries, The Duchossois Family Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries and the institution’s original exhibit, The D-Day Invasion of Normandy. These are all “immersive exhibitions that combine multimedia experiences with an expansive collection of artifacts and first-person oral histories.”
Visitors to the museum’s main campus are also able to experience Beyond All Boundaries, a 4-D film narrated by actor Tom Hanks. The movie, shown daily in the institution’s Solomon Victory Theater, journeys through the history of the European theater and the Pacific theater, and puts viewers in the center of the action through cinematic special effects.
Additionally, the museum is proud to offer visitors the opportunity to step aboard history on PT-305, the only fully restored and operational combat-veteran patrol torpedo boat in existence. After a 10-year restoration project by museum volunteers, PT-305 is available for new generations to take a deck tour or actually ride along as she tears across the waves of Lake Pontchartrain, where she was first put through her paces.
“When visitors come to the museum, we certainly want them to learn history—dates, key battles and major historical milestones,” says Robert M. Citino, Ph.D., who holds the position of Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian at the museum. “At the same time, however, we want them to understand that behind every moment of the war are the personal stories of heroism, sacrifice and courage.”
Citino continues, “These men and women were so young—most barely out of their teenage years—and tasked with saving the world from evil tyranny in countries they may not have heard of before the war. We hope that people will walk out of the museum not only reflective on the cost of war, but understanding that the effort of the WWII generation still influences the world we live in today.”
The museum is currently expanding its campus through a $400 million capital campaign that is expected to be completed by 2021. Earlier this year, the institution broke ground on the Bollinger Canopy of Peace, “a $14 million architectural structure that will unify the distinctive campus and become an iconic element on the New Orleans skyline.” It is scheduled to be completed by late 2018/early 2019.
Additional stages of the museum’s expansion include The Higgins Hotel & Conference Center. An elegant property that is scheduled to open in 2019, it will feature 230 guest rooms and more than 18,000 square feet of conference space to support expanding visitation and educational programs.
Also set to debut in 2019 is the Hall of Democracy, a pavilion that will house academic and outreach programs as well as additional exhibit space. In 2021, the Liberation Pavilion is scheduled to open. It will focus on end-of-war and postwar experiences, as well as the war’s meaning for citizens today.
IF YOU GO
Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
(Museum is closed Mardi Gras Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Dining options include The American Sector Restaurant & Bar and Jeri Nims Soda Shop.)
Keith Darcey is the public relations manager for The National WWII Museum in New Orleans.