From the beginning, it’s been about D-Day.

The ever-expanding National WWII Museum got its new, official moniker from Congress in 2003, but its origins still have locals calling it by its first name.

The modest backyard idea was hatched in 1990 by University of New Orleans colleagues Stephen Ambrose and Nick Mueller to document the contributions of shipbuilder Andrew Higgins to the success of the June 6, 1944, Normandy landings.

“It’s our very direct connection to World War II, and that makes it very special to New Orleans,” said Stephen Watson, the museum’s president and CEO. “That the connection goes back to our origins is a point of pride for us.

“D-Day will always be the heart of this museum — absolutely.”

And it’s why this week, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, is being marked in a big way.

Commemoration of the Longest Day, June 6 — Thursday — will begin at "H-Hour": 6:30 a.m., the time of the D-Day attack. The schedule begins with a sunrise reading of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s order and ends with a screening of the movie of the same name.

There are activities throughout the week. Although regular museum admission prices will apply for the primary exhibit areas, the events and activities in both the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion and the US Freedom Pavilion are free to the public.

“That’s the way we wanted it to be,” said Gemma Birnbaum, associate vice president of the Media and Education Center, who has been in charge of planning. “We want to welcome everyone, especially maybe those from the area who haven’t visited in a while.

“It’s also important to understand that this week is not just about the men who took part in the invasion, but what that day meant to their families and to our country at large.”

A dwindling troop

Naturally, though, some of those remaining direct participants in D-Day will be the guests of honor on Thursday. Fewer than 5,000 of the 160,000 Allied combatants are still alive, and even the youngest are now in their mid-90s.

About 50 D-Day veterans have accepted invitations to attend.

As many as are able will participate in a 1:30 p.m. panel discussion of their memories of the invasion, led by the museum’s oral historians.

”That’s what I’m looking forward to the most,” said Birnbaum, who began planning for the D-Day anniversary events three years ago. “This is a unique and special panel that I think will really resonate with the people here.

“This is the first time in a long time we’ve had this, and we recognize the fact that it may not happen again."

Because an estimated 385 World War II veterans die each day, Watson added, there's a special sense of urgency about planning for the commemoration. “That’s been the case here since our opening,” he said. “We’ve wanted our veterans to be able to share their experiences with their families while they were still able to.

“This is probably the last significant D-Day anniversary for most of them.”

Plus, Watson said, the museum has always been about the veterans of all ranks and their personal stories rather than generals, admirals and grand strategy.

“It’s the human experience of the war,” he said. “Those personal stories have always been front and center.”

Timely footage

Along with the panel discussion, those personal experiences will be reflected in the screening of two documentaries – “Sunken Roads: Three Generations After D-Day,” and “Seize & Secure: The Battle for La Fière.”

"Sunken Roads" was shot by filmmaker Charlotte Juergens in Normandy five years ago and features the reminisces of surviving members of the 29th Infantry, of which Juergens’ great-grandfather, Sgt. Parker Davie Hanna Jr., was a member.

"Seize & Secure" is about a four-day struggle for a small, but strategic bridge over the Merderet River a few miles inland from Omaha Beach.

The footage was shot 10 years ago, but it was put aside until last year when museum officials recognized the timeliness of finishing the documentary. Along with a special screening on Wednesday night in the Solomon Victory Theater, "Seize & Secure" will air the same evening on PBS stations in Louisiana and across the country.

And for those who have never visited the museum’s Invasion of Normandy exhibit, or haven’t done so in a while, Birnbaum said this would be the perfect time.

Reflective moments

While the Road to Tokyo and Road to Berlin sections present a more immersive experience, the Invasion of Normandy, which has changed little since its opening, causes visitors to slow down.

“It’s such a compelling story,” Birnbaum said. “And it’s presented in a much quieter manner than the other exhibits.

“It just lends itself to being reflective about that D-Day and what the war itself meant. D-Day is why the museum is here in the first place.”

Along with the activities in New Orleans, the museum is sponsoring a cruise from Amsterdam to Cherbourg on the Normandy coast. Two ships were needed to fill the demand for the cruise, and about 25 D-Day veterans are taking part.

Earlier this year the museum published “Everything We Have,” an account of D-Day by Mueller featuring nearly 50 first-hand histories collected over the years.

The museum's newest permanent exhibit "Bayou to Battlefield" tells the story of the Higgins boats, the amphibious landing craft of which Eisenhower famously said to Ambrose, "They won the war for us."

The museum also produced an electronic field trip from the landing beaches and other locales which was streamed to more than 800 classrooms in North America and Europe in May and which will be available on the museum website Thursday.

Later this year, the museum’s annual International Conference on World War II will focus on Eisenhower’s leadership during the conflict.

And the museum is looking further ahead. Next year, an even-larger commemoration is expected, marking not only the 75th anniversary of the end of the war but the 20th anniversary of the museum’s opening.