Today’s D-Day anniversary is an especially memorable one in Louisiana, where the museum built to honor the sacrifices of that epic battle has just gotten a huge honor by the people of France.
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans opened in 2000 as the D-Day Museum, its mission reflecting the special connection between the Crescent City and D-Day’s warriors. New Orleans boat builder Andrew Higgins constructed the Higgins boats, the vessels that carried Allied troops ashore as they landed in Normandy, France, as part of a massive push to liberate Europe from the Nazis. Inspired by Higgins’ story, the late historian Stephen E. Ambrose led the drive to build the D-Day Museum in Louisiana. The museum was later renamed the National World War II Museum to reflect its expanded mission as a steward of the war’s broader conflict.
Last month, National WWII Museum President and CEO Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller received the French Legion of Honor alongside veteran broadcaster Tom Brokaw and actor Tom Hanks at a private ceremony at the Grand Chancellery in Paris. The Legion of Honor Medal, which was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, acknowledges services rendered to France by people of exceptional merit and accomplishments. It is the highest distinction awarded by the French government.
Brokaw and Hanks were honored for their work on behalf of the World War II Museum and the various creative projects they have undertaken to affirm the war’s importance to world history. D-Day was a decisive turning point in the war.
On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy — a massive invasion of soldiers, most of them American, intended to begin the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. It was a terrible, bloody mess, as thousands of young men rolled ashore, profoundly vulnerable to German soldiers on the cliffs above.
But the Allies persevered, against daunting odds, and that day marked the beginning of the end of the cruel, fascist tyranny that had darkened modern civilization.
Today’s Europe, democratic and free, was made possible by the sacrifices of life and limb on that Normandy beach, 72 years ago today. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded. Many of the dead rest today in a military cemetery at Normandy. All of the graves face home — to America.
Last month, Americans paused briefly on Memorial Day to remember all of those who have died in military service to this country. Today’s anniversary of D-Day is a reminder that those warriors died in specific ways in specific places — at Normandy, at Iwo Jima, in Korea, Vietnam and, more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not a pleasant thing to think about, but remembrance is what we owe the fallen.
Luckily, Louisiana residents don’t have to travel far to find opportunities for this kind of reflection. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is an especially good place to start.
We hope that Louisiana families make the museum a part of their summer plans. It’s one way to remember a summer day, 72 years ago today, when thousands of young men went to the beach and secured the liberty we still enjoy.