New Orleans, Part 2: The National World War II Museum

On our single full day in New Orleans, we opted for history instead of entertainment and headed to the National World War II Museum. It was, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular, illuminating museums I have ever experienced in my life. This museum, which started out as the D-Day Museum in 2001, and is located in New Orleans because most of the landing craft used on that turning-point day in history was manufactured here. The D-Day Museum was so well received that it was expanded a few years later to become the National WWII Museum.

Lisa’s dog tag

You start by getting a dog tag to represent a soldier you will be tracking all day at check-in stations, and board the same kind of train many soldiers took when they embarked on their journeys. It was a truly immersive experience as, with seats rocking, the train whistle blowing and the grainy black-and-white landscape flying by, the conductor welcomed you aboard.

Beyond Boundaries Film

After getting off the train, we started our explorations by watching the 48-minute film Beyond Boundaries, a 4D experience narrated by Tom Hanks that used film and other sensory effects, including a 1930s wooden-cabinet radio, falling snowflakes, a plane cockpit that lowered from the ceiling to punch out an air battle scene, and more to introduce us to the sheer magnitude of World War II. The mini-documentary stunningly put into perspective the global threat presented by German Furer Adolph Hitler, Italian Benito Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito of Japan, the Axis leaders who wanted nothing less than global domination. It ended at the climax, the bombing of Pearl Harbor that dragged the United States in the war and engaged every person in the country in the fight for the very survival of democracy.

We learned how the ill-equipped United States, previously hesitant to join in the war as Nazi forces took over country after country, stepped up when it came under attack. Men young and old rushed to join the war effort and defend their country against the invaders. Women, who were home raising children, took factory jobs and churned out an incredible volume of planes, jeeps, weapons, artillery and more.

The European Theater

The WWII Museum is comprised of five buildings, and we only had one day, so we chose to enter the Road to Berlin: European Theater gallery. I don’t even know how to describe the experience after this. We spent five awe-struck hours being assaulted from all sides by grainy black-and-white film, sound and lighting effects, real-life voices telling their stories, radio broadcasts, flashes and explosions, and much more.

This breathtaking exhibit took us through the major steps in the European campaign, starting with North Africa and moving across Italy, southern France, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, D-Day, England, and  Germany, that culminated in the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. We experienced the shock that troops felt when they discovered the atrocity of the concentration camps and the slaughter of 6 million Jews, as well as millions of others deemed inferior to Hitler’s Aryan race. We met military leaders and foot soldiers, journalists (including Ernie Pyle’s life and death) and pilots. We saw airplanes and jeeps, nurses’ uniforms and bomber jackets. We shivered in the snowy woods in Germany and leaned away from incoming anti-aircraft fire from a small plane. I thought of my three Troisi uncles who flew many missions in Europe and for the first time had a concept of what their experience was like.

A plane goes down during an air battle

My dog tag soldier, John, was a 17-year-old who went to Canada to pursue becoming a pilot when the United States rejected him because of a previous broken neck. He ended up doing bomb runs for Canada, and then England, before the United States decided to let him join. He won a medal of honor and was a prisoner of war in Germany for more than a year.

Planes, Jeeps and Submarines

We also visited the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, where we saw a number of WWII planes and jeeps, as well as the Medal of Honor Exhibit.

Wartime aircraft
Medal of Honor recipients

We still need to go back to see the other Campaign of Courage: The Pacific Theater, especially since that’s where Bob’s dad was stationed on a Destroyer Escort in 1943-45. There’s a whole hall, the Arsenal of Democracy, that we didn’t have time for, and a doomed submarine experience I’m interested in. The outdoor area is under construction to create a Freedom Garden.

New Orleans is about a lot more than Jazz and Jambalaya. If you visit this city, definitely devote a day or two to the National WWII Museum. To get the full experience of the museum, watch Bob’s video on the Messy Suitcase YouTube channel.

By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt

New Orleans, Part 1: Jazz and Jambalaya

We just spent a couple of nights in New Orleans to break up the road trip from Pennsylvania to Mexico City. We rented a lovely, pet-friendly cottage through AirBnB that had a kitchen, living room and two bedrooms, just a short Uber ride from the action.  It was pristine, affordable and super comfortable.

After working out and showering, we spent our first NOLA night on Bourbon Street, a place we barely got to explore last year when we came through because it was just too loud for Gavin. But this time, with Gavin off at college, we headed down there again. Mardi Gras is still a month away, so it wasn’t high season yet, and we headed out early to avoid crushing crowds and deafening noise.

Bourbon Street is the heart of the touristy French Quarter, and we were planning to go to historic Preservation Hall to see classic New Orleans jazz. For $20 seats on the floor, we would need to stand in line outside to get day-of-show tickets. After a day spent driving, we weren’t in the mood.

Bourbon Street

So we instead opted to get a more local experience recommended by our Uber driver, Joe. First we shared a mouthwatering dinner of blackened redfish and jambalaya at an oyster bar on Bourbon called Le Bayou. Jambalaya is a kind of dirty rice with spicy tomato sauce and andouille sausage. We also enjoyed hurricanes, a classic New Orleans drink with rum and fruity juices. Our waiter kept calling us “y’all,” so we couldn’t forget we were truly in the south. After filling our stomachs, we strolled along Bourbon, taking in the crowd scene, and even saw a school band marching up the road, followed by a small parade of what I assume was a krewe, a social organization that helps put on a parade or ball during the carnival season, which runs January and February.  

Bourbon Street is amazingly loud, even in the off-season, and the road is closed to traffic so people can just wander at their leisure. Musicians with saxophones, guitars or even just spoons and plastic buckets, entertain for tips on street corners. The shops are filled with colorful art, with candy skulls, masks, voodoo paraphernalia, and jazz accouterments.

We walked about a mile to Frenchmen’s Street, a locals’ favorite area. Frenchmen’s is lined on both sides with lively bars and restaurants. As you wander along the sidewalk, you can listen to the music blasting out the open doors and choose your poison. Most have no cover and a local clientele. We chose Marigny Brasserie, and enjoyed an hour of music by a sweet jazz duo. A drunken regular celebrating her 71st birthday alone plopped down next to me at the bar and I was friendly to her. That turned out to be a mistake as she subsequently kept hitting me to get my attention, then ranting in a slurred voice about the injustices of her life and why it was horrible that the bar was showing The Waterboy and Captain Phillips on the big screen when people should be getting to know each other instead. Since she sitting on a stool between me and the band, it was impossible for me to watch the band. I guess if you want to be where the locals are, sometimes you have to put up with a local!

But we ducked out and wandered, encountering an Art Market where local artisans sold jewelry, paintings, even hand-made three-string guitars.

The band at Bamboulia’s

On the second evening, we ate at Bamboulina’s, a cozy bar with exposed brick walls, and enjoyed incredible pulled pork and a wonderful blues band. If I lived in NOLA, I think I would go to Frenchmen’s every weekend and try a different bar each time! Our last Uber driver encouraged us to try Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans next time, so watch for that blog in the spring when we pass through again on our way back north!

Up next … The National World War II Museum