Here’s what it may mean when Paul Hilliard, 95, completes his tenure as board chairman at the National WWII Museum on June 30: He’ll be the last World War II veteran to guide the trustees over the massive museum in New Orleans, one of the world’s busiest.
Hilliard, a Louisiana oilman, has been a mainstay in the museum’s volunteer leadership since 2006, when he first joined the board. He’s since served in myriad capacities, including leading acquisitions for the museum collection. Among his first projects was helping to purchase a C-47 transport plane — it carried pathfinders to their positions for D-Day — that now hangs over the museum floor.
His interest in the war’s history accelerated in the 1980s, when he attended a seminar hosted by history professors at the University of New Orleans who later founded the museum. They discussed an aspect of D-Day, half a globe away from the Philippines campaign, where he served at 19 as a Marine tail gunner on a dive bomber in 45 missions. The seminar awakened this knowledge: That his role in the war was a slender and distant one in a global conflict that touched every continent on land, water and in the air and cost 60 million lives. Then near 60, he wanted to learn about the rest of the war.
Hilliard’s influence on the museum has been ubiquitous. “If you look around the museum,” president and CEO Stephen Watson said, “… he has touched about everything in which the museum has been involved.” That includes during his two-year board chairmanship, when the Hall of Democracy and the Higgins Hotel opened.
Hilliard’s interest resides less in what’s accomplished but more in what must be done. He and countless others — founders, scholars, staff, volunteers — will leave a museum that’s been richly supported by people who’ve touched the war in personal ways. Someday, they’ll give way to new leaders and supporters, who must embrace the mission to teach the war’s lessons to others. To that end, the museum has expanded its facilities and exhibits manyfold and has also transported the war’s message through new remote-learning tools.
That means teaching about the American experience in WWII to new generations everywhere, making the story meaningful and relevant to people who are yet unborn.
“Each generation is responsible for securing its own freedoms,” Hilliard said long ago. That includes knowing the stakes of war and peace, which the museum teaches in every square foot.
The museum is a magnificent gift to Louisiana and the world. It provides the means to learn lessons vital to winning and retaining freedom. That work is never complete but must be passed on to willing hands — yours, ours, everyone’s.