NEW ORLEANS - A grand celebration of Hollywood proportions has opened the newest wing of the National WWII Museum in the Big Easy.
There's Tom Hanks' multi-sensory production, "Beyond All Boundaries," in the Solomon Victory Theater; the Stage Door Canteen; and a restaurant created by celebrity chef John Besh.
The new offerings expand what was established in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum and has evolved into the National World War II Museum. With at least 900 World War II veterans dying every day, the museum is pursuing an urgent mission to preserve as many stories and memories as possible as it continues to expand the size of its facility through 2015.
Museum officials are in the middle of a $300 million fund-raising campaign to fill out its six-acre campus with exhibits and other features that represent all aspects of the War that Changed the World. So far, $90 million has been raised toward this goal.
While New Orleans may not seem an obvious spot for honoring the Greatest Generation, it was the production site of the Higgins boat - the flat-fronted landing craft that ferried soldiers, jeeps, and tanks from ships to the shores of France, North Africa, and South Pacific islands. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower credited the Higgins boat with winning the war for the Allies.
Andrew Jackson Higgins, a flamboyant entrepreneur, developed the boat - featuring a drop ramp at the bow for landing and unloading - that could haul a platoon of 36 soldiers and their gear, or 8,100 pounds of equipment. More than 20,000 of the craft were built on the current site of the University of New Orleans.
Expansion plans for the National D-Day Museum stopped - and attendance dropped - after the massive flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Although the museum escaped damage, the disaster drew an outpouring of support from veterans and lawmakers from around the country, jump-starting construction last year.
The museum's mission attracted Hanks, who is executive producer of "Beyond All Boundaries," the new show in the 4-D Victory Theater with a panoramic screen. The 45-minute production is a natural extension of his work on the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan and the 2001 TV mini-series Band of Brothers.
Working with historians, Hanks enlisted a cast of Hollywood voices including Kevin Bacon, Kevin Connolly, Blythe Danner, Viola Davis, Neil Patrick Harris, Kevin Jonas, Tobey Maguire, Brad Pitt, Bill Sadler, and Elijah Wood.
The writings of journalist Ernie Pyle figure heavily in the production. During the war, Pyle became famous for relaying not just the logistics of battle, but how it felt to be a soldier. He was killed in 1945 while reporting in combat in the Pacific.
"Beyond All Boundaries" puts viewers on the battlefield, where they can feel the zing of bullets flying by their heads and see their wounded friends reaching out to them. The production relies on layers of screens and sets to create dimension. The production uses archival footage and high-resolution animations.
The show is so immersive that planners knew they needed a lighter attraction to accompany the experience. The Stage Door Canteen is dedicated to the stars who entertained the troops. Singers and musicians reenact 1940s vintage performances on the stage.
The American Sector restaurant boasts the culinary talent of Besh, a Marine veteran of Operation Desert Storm. "American Sector" is what the French population called this neighborhood in the 1880s.
Local vets volunteer as guides and have a profound effect on people curious to hear their accounts. The accounts of women, African Americans, and Native Americans also are presented. In addition, the museum offers the personal stories of German and Japanese soldiers who fought against Allied forces. Each segment contains button-activated voice recordings, with wartime photos of the person speaking.
"A wounded man kept crying, 'Mother, Mother! Help me!' as he struggled to rise. Another burst from the machine gun silenced him. That beseeching plea on the clear, cold Christmas night will remain with me for the rest of my life," according to an account by Sgt. Bruce Egger, 328th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 26th Division.
For many visitors, the South Pacific wing provides the most overwhelming experience in the permanent collection of film footage and photos.
During the Bataan Death March in 1942, for example, the Japanese marched 75,000 American and Filipino captives 60 miles to prison camps. The soldiers were starved and tortured, and many were killed. The scarring effect of witnessing war is evident in many of the accounts, which are recommended for mature visitors.
The museum plans to solicit personal accounts from veterans through online appeals, which will be presented when the museum is completed in 2015, says Kacey M. Hill, a museum spokesperson.
Many families have donated letters and other artifacts, and the museum officials want to provide a place in history for every vet.
Planned pavilions will tell the stories of the merchant marine and the Coast Guard, and of the campaign in North Africa. Once the six-acre site is fully developed, officials say, it could take up to three days to view all parts of the museum.
Where: 945 Magazine St. Entrance is on Andrew Higgins Drive
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Tickets: Adults, $16; seniors ages 65-79, $12; seniors 80 and older, $8; children K-12, $8; college students with ID, $8; military with ID, $8. Entrance to the Victory Theater is extra; combination deals are available.
Touring the museum takes two to three hours.