In My Mind's I

We’re approaching the anniversary of the “day that will live in infamy” — Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day.
But President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s announcement after the Japanese sneak attack has faded into ancient history for so many, and those who fought in the aftermath, when our country joined the World War II allies, are now dying at a rate exceeding 1,000 per day.
My mother had five brothers; all served in World War II. One — the youngest — was the first to enlist, in what is now the U.S. Air Force but was then the Army Air Corps. He is my last living uncle, and he recently joined me and my husband, a Korean War vet, for a visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
What is now an American treasure began as a simple local museum on June 6, 2000, the anniversary of D-Day, when U.S. forces stormed the beaches of Normandy and paved the way for Germany’s surrender. That landing cost much in manpower and equipment while it achieved much, but it would never have been possible at all without the work of A.J. Higgins, the man who invented drop-front landing ships for troops and war materiel. He was a New Orleans native, his business was there, and that accounts for the now-greatly-expanded museum’s location. Its D-Day/Normandy section was the start of something that currently also includes sections on the preludes to that war — the Great Depression, the European aftermath of World War I, etc. — and on the harrowing Pacific Theater fighting that followed Pearl Harbor Day. It is impossible to do justice to all the exhibits unless you spend a minimum full day there. We took 2-1/2.
Museums have become an art form today. We went to see this one during the dedication weekend of its new building, which houses facilities for various performances and special events, a restaurant called “The American Sector,” and a theater showing “Beyond All Boundaries,” a 4-D film experience narrated by its producer, Tom Hanks. For those who know little about the war it portrays, this is an education. For those who know much, it’s the kind of tribute embodied in the museum’s mission statement: “celebrat[ing] the American spirit, the teamwork, optimism, courage and sacrifice of the men and women who won World War II, and promot[ing] the exploration and expression of these values by future generations.”
As you might expect, World War II vets get the royal treatment there. When we stopped in the new restaurant for a bite to eat, my uncle was wearing a cap proclaiming his status and service branch, and he was warmly greeted by a host who asked his name and where he had seen duty. The next thing we knew, the man rang a bell that silenced everyone in the place, then announced, “We have the honor of dining today with….” Quite an experience! And everywhere on the premises, everyone shakes the hands of all the visiting vets and thanks them for their service.
We stayed at a “lucky” hotel I had located via the Internet, finding it was made up of three old houses at the end of the Garden District, right on the famed St. Charles streetcar line but within easy walking distance of the museum, and that it provided breakfast. What I didn’t know in advance was that its founders and owners are an old-time New Orleans family, the Halperns, who’ve had a major furniture store right next door for many, many years. A happy new bit of Jewish history to bring home along with the museum memories!
A museum section now under construction will cover World War II’s campaigns in Africa and Italy — where my uncle, then a flight engineer, served with the Fifth Bomb Wing. He’s 87 now, but we’ve promised each other that if we’re all still alive and at least figuratively kicking in 18 months, when that new exhibit is due to open, the three of us will go back again together.
If you can, please visit the World War II Museum some day. But next Monday, you can remember Pearl Harbor. Please do so!
(This seems a proper time for a final salute to Dallasite Jordan Uttal, distinguished Jewish World War II vet, who died on Nov. 15 at age 94. He enlisted as a Private in December 1941, returned to civilian life as a Major in 1945, co-founded the Second Air Division Association and was president of the Norwich, England, library that honors all U.S. troops who fought there for freedom.)

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