National World War II Museum

The National World War II Museum is the top attraction in New Orleans, a city that is not lacking in attractions. (We could learn a lot from the long-gone original French and creole inhabitants, who judged men by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin).

How did a WWII Museum wind up in New Orleans? It started as the National D-Day Museum, and that was because one of the key devices of the war was, as was its inventor, a New Orleans native. That invention was the LCVP, Landing Craft Vehicles and Personnel, aka the Higgins Boat(.pdf), after its inventor, Andrew Jackson Higgins, who went from running a boatyard that made work boats and yachts to running seven boatyards turning out LCVPs and PT Boats for the Navy. (New Orleans also had three more shipyards during the war, building Liberty ships).

Irony for you? Of the many thousands of LCVPs made, only a dozen or so survive, with only a couple in original and seaworthy condition. So the Museum itself displays a replica that was built by locals, including some former Higgins workers, to the original plans! On the other hand, PT 305, which is under restoration at the Museum, is an actual Higgins PT boat, one of 199. The Higgins boats were equivalent to the more common Elco boats in performance, but the Elcos looked faster. The Museum lets you watch restorations in progress (from the other side of the glass), but don’t count on anything particular happening during your visit.

museum-restoration-pt-305

The D-Day invasion depended on the Higgins boats, but then, so did every other amphibious operation in all theaters of war. So it seemed sensible to expand the Museum to cover the whole war. Go big or go home, right?

And, in fact, you can spend a day in the Museum and learn a basically straightforward overview of the war, a valuable replacement for the nonsense produced by the race/sex/class obsessed history departments of modern universities. One of the high points of the Museum is a fifty-minute documentary telling the story of America’s WWII, produced and narrated by Hollywood’s Everyman, Tom Hanks. (It’s called Beyond all Boundaries).

Another is frequent stations with short interview snippets from actual veterans. (These are vivid enough to make you long for access to the whole interview. Unfortunately, everything in the Museum seems to be optimized for the minimal attention spans of 2016).

But really, you guys want to know about the guns, right? The Museum does have displays of representative firearms of the war, some common and some rare. We didn’t see much explanation of which weapon was used when, let alone each one’s characteristics, pros and cons. But the actual guns are there to see, usually behind glass.

Here are two Japanese aerial weapons. The upper gun may look at a glance like an aerial Browning, but it’s no such thing. It’s a Japanese copy of a post-WWI-vintage Vickers aerial gun. Inside, it’s got the Maxim toggle lock.

wwii_museum-06

The fat guy in front is a 20mm Type 99 Mk I aerial cannon, a Japanese design based entirely on Oerlikon principles. It is usually seen as a flexible gun, but this one appears to be configured for fixed, forward-firing installation. It operated by blowback with advanced primer ignition (therefore, requiring a rebated cartridge). It had a low cyclic rate of fire, for an aerial gun (510 RPM) and was fed by a 60-round drum magazine.

And there are naval weapons. Here’s a torpedo in the restoration hall, although there was no information on it handy.

wwii-museum-torpedo

There are plenty of support and crew-served weapons, aircraft, and military vehicles. Among the historic cannon represented are a German 8.8 cm Flak 38 (the dreaded “88”), and this American 75 mm pack howitzer. This gun was a lightweight version of the standard US weapon derived from the World War I “French 75.” This display, with the actual artifact in front of a blown-up period photo of how it was used, was pretty typical.

wwii_museum-12

A number of these guns are still in use as saluting cannon on American bases, and Lord knows how many may still be in the arsenals of small countries.

wwii_museum-10The 75 fired several different projectiles, depending on the target. On the left, the M72 Armor Piercing Tracer (AP-T) round, a solid-shot kinetic penetrator that was only effective against thinly armored vehicles at close ranges.

On the right, the more usual 75 mm M48 HE round. The M48 weighed 18 pounds, of which about 10% — 1.75 pounds — was explosive filling.

The reason for using a smaller howitzer, rather than the 105, came down to one thing — the portability of the gun, and the ammunition. Every 105 HE round weighed around 35 pounds, for example. In a pinch, the 75 could be moved short distances by its human crew.

One remarkable feature is a submarine interactive called The Final Mission, which reproduces (in a compressed fashion) the last actions of USS Tang, America’s most successful submarine, which was a record-setter even before its fifth and final war patrol. In an intense night surface action, Tang sunk five Japanese ships — and sunk itself.

Who is the museum not for? It’s probably not the very best thing for anyone who’s already extremely well-informed about World War II — you’ll still enjoy yourself, but you won’t learn much from a presentation that of necessity hits the high notes. It will also be disappointing for anyone hoping for much about the war prior to 7 December 41. (Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no). Seriously, the war had been going for over two years in Europe, and over four in China, when the US got involved.

The Museum has a decent website, enlivened by something you seldom see, an entertaining and educational 404 page.

One last note — as the most popular attraction in a tourist-rich city, the Museum is usually packed. This is especially true when foul weather drives tourists out of the city’s usual walking environs (and off the open top deck of tour buses).

Update

Per the comments and email from Our Traveling Reporter, the restoration of PT 305 is nearly finished and the boat was transported, with great ceremony, to Lake Ponchartrain this week. We’ll try to have video for you soon. It’s way more beautiful than it could have been as a working motor torpedo or motor gun boat (many of the PTs in the Med dispensed with torpedoes, for lack of worthwhile enemy targets). Congratulations to all at the Museum, especially in the restoration shop.

13 thoughts on “National World War II Museum

  1. Jack Feldman

    I’m a charter contributor to the museum, and delighted you found it worthwhile. There’s a brick there dedicated to my late uncle Stan, a platoon leader in the Third Ranger Division
    at Anzio. He survived.

  2. Aesop

    That M1 version of the 75mm pack howitzer was designed so it could be taken apart into 6 different component loads (no one of which, curiously, was/is capable of being hefted by the current average modern female soldierette) transportable over rough terrain by pack mule, and carried anywhere said pack mule could go, from the rocky Italian peninsula, to the jungle tracks of Burma and Pacific island campaigns. It could also be air-dropped as components, or carried in by glider troops or aboard C-47s, giving airborne units their primary artillery pieces, and towed by prime movers like Jeeps, mules again, or in a pinch, the gun crew, being the main artillery of airborne, mountain, and Marine units throughout WWII and Korea. Variants were also mounted on half-tracks and light tank chassis, and all variants gave a nominal 5 mi. range to targets, with more punch than organic infantry mortars.

    Captured examples originally given to Chiang Kai Shek’s troops in China were passed along to the Viet Minh in the 1950s, and used to shell the French at Dien Bien Phu.

    They were still actively deployed by the Japanese Army through the 1980s, and still serve in Turkey’s armed forces to the present day.

    In a perfect world, they’d be available now to private parties in moderate numbers with the appropriate tax stamp. Those zombies aren’t going to shell themselves.

    The Museum, by all descriptions, improves by the year, and is probably the only reason we’d swing through Nawlins, other than a prime dinner spot or three.

  3. Badger

    That “period” photo with the 75mm has a very CBI-ish quality to it.
    That museum is on my bucket-list; thanks for whetting the appetite.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yeah, OTR sent me two links on it today, also. Maybe I’ll get it in place for 1100 tomorrow. (Right now something else is scheduled in there).

    2. Slow Joe Crow

      That will double the worldwide count of working PT boats since at the moment PT 658 in Portland is the only PT boat regularly in the water and operational. Coincidentally 658 is also a Higgins boat.

      1. Hognose Post author

        I was surprised to learn how many fewer boats Higgins made than Elco. I always loved the lines of the Elco, more thoroughbred even though beamier than the Higgins. But also, growing up in the 60s meant getting a lot of PT Boat pop culture. In retrospect they served a sort of cavalry screening role, a bit like subs. It was rare for them to fight a decisive fight, but the ground truth (er, sea truth?) they brought back to the admirals must have been worth its weight in gold.

  4. SemperFido

    Badger, another place to add to your bucket list is the Big Red One museum in Wheaton Illinois. Originally the home of Robert R. McCormick and now known as Cantigny Park it is worth going just to have the house tour and to see his personal firearm and knife collection. Such wonderful toys! Then there are the demilled tanks including a small one from WW1 and a real honest to Gawd Panther G.
    But the best of all is the museum itself with a history of the Big Red One from inception to Vietnam. Including a movie theater showing a D Day landing which drops open like a landing craft door when the flick is done into a recreation of Omaha beach.

  5. 6pounder

    We visited several years ago and really enjoyed it, except for almost getting thrown out after my sister sent all the children and grandchildren up the ramp on the Higgins boat so she could get some pictures. I told her the sign was there for a reason.
    Did you visit the Confederate museum also? They have a lot of original items, too many to display in the small building.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I did not, even though it’s adjacent to the WWII museum and in a fascinating building. They call it a Civil War Museum now, but the whole Confederate thing (the building is still known by its original name, Confederate Hall) creeped the Blogfather out.

  6. Air

    My high school job boss was a Torpedoman Mate on a PT in the Pacific. Wonderful stories of having to switch battle stations (all were crossed trained) while bouncing atop the waves at 40kn, strapping down a 1” field gun (if I recall correctly) to the stern with him stating the rules, “If you can feed it, you can keep it”, sitting atop the centerline engine learning the Engineman’s job, refueling at night from barges sunk in lagoons and drifting away before firing up the engines due to the high Octane fuel… True or sea story, they all sounded good to this aspiring Naval Officer, RIP TM2.

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