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Museum resonates with a war's story

NEW ORLEANS

The war to control the continent of Europe ended 63 years ago this month. In the National World War II Museum here, silent echoes are louder than the narrated displays and oral histories. Those recordings speak about one place or one battle or one soldier, but the silent echoes cover nations, years, millions of people.

Those echoes are the thoughts that crowd one on top of another as you view photos and posters, maps and medals, an airplane and a letter from the front.

It is mighty ambitious to try to present a war that engulfed most of the world for so many years. This museum started out more modestly: It opened in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum, on June 6 — of course.

It focused on that event, the largest military operation ever, and was hugely successful in its portrayal of events as they affected individual soldiers, sailors and airmen.

The oral histories were particularly moving; almost eight years after I first visited, I still recall the comment by one of the specially trained soldiers who scaled the cliffs on those French beaches: "We're not heroes, we're Rangers.''

That modesty — everyday people doing difficult jobs because they had to — still permeates the expanded museum.

Within 17 months of its opening, the museum boasted new galleries, depicting the war in the Pacific. I had not seen these galleries until I visited last month.

Fighting different wars

At the entry to this newer area, a sign explains differences between the European and Pacific theaters of operation, differences most of us probably never considered:

When Americans went to fight in Europe, it was "amid people and places that — while foreign — had important connections with their lives back in America. Terrain, weather, place names and, sometimes, ethnicities were familiar links that provided some comfort.''

"Americans who served in the Pacific fought a very different kind of war . . . In jungles, on tiny atolls, they confronted environments and cultures with fewer reference points. Their war involved vast distances, isolation and harsh, unfamiliar surroundings that placed special burdens on them.''

The difference in the racial heritage of the combatants is addressed directly. For propaganda purposes, there was vicious stereotyping of physical and cultural differences, by both sides. Displayed are posters, cartoons and articles portraying the enemy as less than human.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States took the extraordinary and controversial step of putting thousands of Japanese-American citizens into guarded camps, lest they be saboteurs.

Later, a relative handful were allowed to fight for their country, mainly in Europe. So it's not surprising to listen to a two-minute oral history from one of these former soldiers, recruited to serve as a translator in the Pacific theater:

"We felt we had to prove we were loyal Americans. I felt they (Japanese prisoners he interrogated) hated me: I used their language against them . . . When I came back to America, I felt I came home.''

Similarly, photos and text recount how the U.S. armed forces were segregated, with units of black soldiers often given noncombat assignments. That makes the role of the famed black fighter pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, more significant.

Simple symbols

The artifacts shown here are typically simple, their stories moving:

• A case holds the Medal of Honor, awarded posthumously to Seaman 1st class Johnnie David Hutchins. The sign with it relates that though he was mortally wounded, he took over the steering of an LST away from an approaching torpedo, off New Guinea, thus saving the lives of all aboard.

• Here are the flight jacket, wings and dog tag worn by Sgt. Robert C. Bourgeois, a bombardier in the acclaimed Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942, an immense boost for America's spirit coming so soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

• A U.S. flag, sheltered in a dimly lit case to preserve its fading colors, is on display. The flag, which flew on the USS Bayfield during the battle for Iwo Jima, sits next to a small photo of a young sailor — who would, decades later, donate the flag: Citrus County resident and retired Times photographer B.J. Oram.

• In another gallery is the small book translating pages from a diary kept by a Japanese soldier stationed on Saipan; more than 90 percent of his 25,000 colleagues would lose their lives. The translation reads:

"To die instantly is simple, but to fight on and on is hard. No way to treat the wounded. I feel very sorry for them.''

The entry is dated two days before this soldier was killed, in June 1944.

• In another case are two items that bring a smile after all this sadness. A small piece of paper bears this hand-printed message:

Please send to Mrs. Radford Jones, Belhaven, N.C.

That is my mother.

With the note is a wallet that had belonged to Pfc. Jacklyn H. Lucas, who lied about his age to enlist in the Marines at age 14. The Corps learned his true age later but kept him in the service, though out of combat.

But at age 17, he stowed away on a troop ship — and wound up on Iwo Jima. In a battle there in February 1945, the Japanese rolled two hand grenades at Lucas and his buddies. Using his helmet as a partial shield, he threw himself on the grenades. One was a dud.

Lucas' wounds were severe enough that he was evacuated; the wallet, holding $16 and the note, was found in his gear. It worked its way through the military bureaucracy until, in 1950, Mrs. Jones received the wallet, the note and a government check for $16.

By then, it had been nearly five years since President Harry S. Truman had presented Lucas with the Medal of Honor. He was the youngest recipient during World War II.

The museum is filled with similar stories and artifacts, creating silent echoes you hear for a long time.

Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at (727) 893-8496 or bjenkins@sptimes.com.

>>IF YOU GO

The National World War II Museum

Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. General admission is $14, seniors and students $8, active military and spouse $6, military in uniform free, 6 to 12 years $5, 5 and younger free.

The museum is wheelchair accessible.

It is in New Orleans' Warehouse District, on Andrew Higgins Drive, between Camp and Magazine streets.

For more information: Call (504) 527-6012 or visit www.nationalww2museum.org.

Museum resonates with a war's story 05/26/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2008 7:21am]
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