National WWII Museum welcomes 4 millionth visitor _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The Freedom Pavilion at the World War II Museum in New Orleans.

New Orleans — Like the domestic industrial effort to which it pays tribute, the National World War II Museum’s latest addition was abuzz with activity less than 72 hours before Sunday’s public opening.

But the forklift trucks are now gone from the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, leaving behind a dramatic space designed with the goal of simultaneously informing visitors and taking their breath away.

“People come in here and their jaws drop, and they don’t know what to do next,” said museum CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller at a preview showing for media and guests on Thursday. “Tom Brokaw was just here. He was just in awe of this place and what was going on here. It’s an amazing space.”

“I think we nailed it,” said Owen Glendening, associate vice president in charge of the museum’s artifacts.

The $35 million building, designed by the Voorsanger Mathes architectural firm, features a four-story glass wall that reveals the most visually dramatic exhibits to those standing a block away — six American warplanes, the largest and most iconic of which is the B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber.

All of them hang from the ceiling at angles that suggest flight: mostly level for the B-17 and B-25 Mitchell bombers, in simulated dives and turns for the P-51 Mustang and F4U Corsair fighters, SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bomber and TBM Avenger torpedo bomber.

The airplanes, a Sherman tank and various vehicles are displayed for more than their individual contributions to the war effort. They symbolize the nation’s industrial might, which helped turn the tide of a war that was going badly for Allied forces before and shortly after the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust America into the conflict.

“We’re telling here the story of the arsenal of democracy, FDR’s famous phrase,” Glendening said. “We were building this stuff in incredible quantities and pouring it out across the globe.”

The B-17 was one of 12,726 built during the war, and this particular aircraft, nicknamed “My Gal Sal,” had a unique history. Bad weather forced it to land on Greenland, where it remained for 53 years beneath ice and snow before being retrieved and restored by Cincinnati, Ohio businessman Bob Ready. It was taken apart, brought to the museum in five 18-wheelers and reassembled before being hoisted to its current display.

Visitors can view the static displays from the floor and from three levels of walkways, the highest of which allows a view from above. Along these walkways are interactive displays that show a 360-degree view of each cockpit, pointing out some of its features, and offering oral histories from airmen who flew each type of airplane.

The interactivity doesn’t stop there. “Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience” takes 27 visitors at a time into a mock-up of the submarine, where they can work controls and view a depiction of its final battle. Portraits of all 464 World War II Medal of Honor recipients are displayed on one wall, and each recipient’s story can be called up on a touch screen. Similar screens allow visitors to learn about key battles, and nearby booths provide access to veterans’ oral histories.

Another highly visible activity is the “What Would You Do?” exhibit. Two large video screens describe actual moral dilemmas that took place during the war, such as the Allied decision whether or not to bomb German railroad yards in cities where bombing would inevitably cause large numbers of civilian deaths. Individuals decide what they would do and see how that compares with other visitors, then learn what actually happened in the war.

Except for the USS Tang exhibit, the pavilion opens today for standard hours of operation, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. All exhibits will be open to the public on Monday.