They flew bomber missions over occupied Europe, stormed the beaches at Normandy or fought in the Battle of the Bulge, all of them soldiers in the epic struggle against Nazism.
On Friday, seven decades later, with tentative steps and halting voices, about 100 of those veterans made their way through the National World War II Museum’s latest tribute to their efforts.
The eight-gallery, 32,000-square-foot exhibit, titled “The Road to Berlin,” will open to the public Saturday.
Rather than presenting the defeat of Hitler’s Germany in sterile rows of glass cases, the exhibit plunges the visitors into the landscapes of the campaign, from the sands of North Africa to the piney forests of the Ardennes, providing an “immersive” way for visitors to experience the U.S. role in the European theater of World War II.
Walkways are dotted with artillery or map tables, videos play on textured walls, and the landscapes are re-created in a realistic way. There are glass cases, too, and plenty of places to linger over rich details, such as oral histories from many of those who were there.
A second exhibit in the museum’s Campaigns of Courage Pavilion, titled “Road To Tokyo” and featuring scenes from the war in the Pacific, will open next year.
On Friday morning, the World War II veterans who attended the opening ceremony were among the first to go through the exhibit. Some chatted away throughout; others absorbed it in a more reflective manner.
Irwin Stovroff, whose first mission in the Air Force was flying a B-24 Liberator in air support for the D-Day invasion in June 1944, got choked up when asked how the exhibit made him feel.
“It’s very emotional. Now I understand more than ever what the guys on the ground went through,” he said.
Stovroff, 92, who now runs a charity that matches blinded and disabled veterans with therapy dogs, was there with his companion, Doris Tamarkin, and his golden retriever, Cash.
After a few missions over the beaches of Normandy, Stovroff flew nearly three dozen missions over German positions in France, trying “to destroy whatever they were bringing in for support,” as he described it.
“I was shot down on my goddamn 35th mission,” Stovroff said, after which he spent a year in a German prisoner of war camp. On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he went to Normandy and was able to visit the spot where he had been shot down.
Stovroff, Tamarkin and Cash moved slowly through the exhibit, taking time to speak to other veterans, some of whom they knew.
One of those was Morton Brooks, 89. Brooks served in the Battle of the Bulge and was captured and forced to work in mines by the Germans for months before being freed in April 1945.
Brooks was in his late teens when he was captured, and he said the “Road to Berlin” exhibit reminded him how amazed he was when the Allies won the war.
“I felt it was important,” he said. “This brings back memories.”
Brooks traveled to the museum with his 30-year-old grandson, Ben Cownie, who said seeing the exhibit with his grandfather helped him connect the real-life events to the history books.
“When you learn about things in school, it doesn’t really connect,” he said. “That’s something (the exhibit) has done really well.”
Before the doors on the exhibit opened, the World War II veterans were fêted at a ceremony in the museum’s Boeing Pavilion. They were saluted by a collection of active-duty military and a raft of public officials, including Gov. Bobby Jindal, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“These are more than exhibits,” Jindal said. “This is a way to honor our veterans who fought tirelessly to protect our freedom.”
Dardenne called the museum a “reminder of the service of those in the past and an inspiration for those in the future,” and Landrieu said the World War II veterans “showed us that the U.S. can be better.”
In addition, Maurice Renaud, president of the Amis des Veterans Americains, a French group, thanked the soldiers for being part of the forces that protected his Normandy town from the Germans in the fighting after D-Day.
Renaud’s father was the mayor of Ste. Mère-Église, just above the beaches. Had American paratroopers not dislodged the Germans from the town, he said, his family would have been high on the Germans’ execution list.
Cathy Ehlers, whose father, Walt Ehlers, was awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II, presented that medal to the museum on behalf of her family.
“This museum embraces the whole story,” she said. Her father, who died in February, was a vocal supporter of the museum and “The Road to Berlin” from its inception, she said.
Despite his medal, she said, her father insisted he wasn’t a hero. “This medal belongs to all who fought,” she quoted him as saying.
After the presentation, the World War II veterans filed out first, many walking slowly or being wheeled toward the new exhibit before the others followed for a ribbon-cutting and flyover from World War II-era fighters.
Once in the exhibit, many veterans lingered over pictures that portrayed the soldiers during the war: younger, stronger, cockier versions of themselves, lounging on planes or Jeeps or the ground, some grinning, some staring into space with cigarettes dangling from their lips.
While the hair, the cigarettes and the cocky smiles have faded into memory, the resolve is still there.
And so is the humility. Gazing upon some World War II-era artillery, Stovroff echoed Walt Ehlers’ sentiments about heroism.
“I am not a special person,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.