NEW ORLEANS — When Nick Mueller walks through the D-Day section of the National WWII Museum, it’s not the wall-sized picture of the German defense structures on Omaha and Utah beaches he wants visitors to see.
Or the grainy photo of an American soldier in the surf that Steven Spielberg adapted as the distinctive look opening the film “Saving Private Ryan.”
Or the supplies of war — a crashed Waco glider with a Jeep inside, rifles carried by infantrymen, high-and-tight jump boots used by paratroopers.
What he wants them to see are the personal artifacts: soap, razor blades, tooth powder, cigarettes, matches. The letters — some from home and some written but never mailed — move the museum’s founding president and CEO emeritus to this day.
“Ernie Pyle called it ‘the detritus of war,’ when he saw things still floating in the water when he was coming ashore the next day,” said Mueller, who directed the operations of the museum from 1998 until his retirement two years ago. “When you think about how much those things meant to the men, especially letters and even the blank pages meant for those which were never written, well, it’s pretty powerful stuff.”
It’s the stories of those men, and some women, who were directly involved in what museum senior historian Robert Citino calls “the pivotal day of the 20th century” that Mueller tells in “Everything We Have,” the museum’s account of 75 years ago — June 6, 1944.
The book was released last week but will be formally introduced Thursday at a reception, presentation and signing at the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, launching a number of activities leading up to the anniversary date itself.
The D-Day section was the original focus of the project Mueller and the late Stephen Ambrose conceived almost 30 years ago.
Unlike Ambrose’s seminal 1994 best-selling account of D-Day, which tells the narrative by setting the stage, introducing major figures and relying on firsthand accounts, Mueller quickly gets to the point.
While providing overviews of the situations in the landing areas, he lets the spotlight shine on the 45 oral histories out of the more than 10,000 collected from veterans over the years (Ambrose had about 1,000 in 1990).
“Steve knew the power of the individual,” said Mueller, who was a history professor and vice chancellor at UNO before getting into the museum game. “We knew we wanted this book to be different from other books about D-Day.
“And we wanted the focus to be from midnight to midnight on June 6. So we let the veterans tell the story.”
Mueller penned the supporting material. But most of the participants' stories were chosen by museum staffers Coleman Warner and Kali Martin, who handled the arduous tasks of first transcribing and then editing the oral histories.
The individual accounts represent all aspects of the day. While most are by American soldiers, sailors and airmen, one is by a captured German platoon leader and another by a nurse who treated the wounded and dying back in England while doing her best to keep her emotions in check.
In keeping with the emphasis on those directly involved in the fighting, none of the accounts are by generals, although the title comes from Gen. Eisenhower’s declaration that only using all of the Allied resources would guarantee victory.
In fact, few of the narrators were making large command decisions that day.
Most were enlisted men, the majority seeing combat for the first time.
They shared a common emotion — knowledge that they were front-line participants in a momentous event. The 4,700 battle deaths attributed to D-Day make it the deadliest day in U.S. military history. Many soldiers worried whether they would be up to the task of doing their duty.
Others, like Pvt. Harold Baumgarten, were concerned about how their deaths would affect their families. Baumgarten wrote to his sister to make sure she intercepted the telegram so that she could deliver the news to their parents instead.
Instead, Baumgarten, a member of the first wave at Omaha Beach, survived despite being wounded five times. The watch he wore that day is among the artifacts on display at the museum.
Howard Vander Beck, a high school English teacher from Iowa who guided one of the landing craft at Utah Beach, said it best: “The English language does not provide multifaceted, exact word can describe what surely must have been surging through each man’s mind and body. Were such a word to be coined, it would include meanings in such interrelated words as bravery, weakness, trust, toughness, uncertainty, love, tenacity, determination, despair, fearlessness, fright, faith, assurance, doubt, hate, loyalty, distrust, resolution, seriousness, prayerfulness, bravado and hope.”
Obviously not all of the accounts are that eloquent. Most are simple and straightforward, although a couple, between the fog of war and decades of separation, get lost in the woods. Those, Mueller adds, took some “strong editing.”
The words are backed with photos from the battles and of the artifacts, some of which have been in the museum since its opening, plus helpful, large-scale maps.
This won’t be Mueller’s valedictory contribution to honoring those from what Tom Brokaw, who wrote the foreword, called “The Greatest Generation.” But it is one he sees as fitting.
“This book is about saving memories of those we should never forget,” he said. “That’s what the museum is about, too.
“I want the reader to come away asking the question, ‘Could I have done it like those men did that day?’ Thank God they did.”
"Everything We Have" by Gordon "Nick" Mueller
WHEN: 5 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, 945 Magazine St., New Orleans