The D-Day Museum

Article excerpt

What do you need to build the only national museum dedicated to World War II? The same things we needed to fight the war it commemorates: faith, passion, perseverance--and a huge amount of money.

IN 1964, AT FORMER PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER'S OFFICE IN GETTYSBURG, Pennsylvania, I met with him at his invitation to discuss my becoming one of the editors of the Eisenhower Papers and his biographer. Of course I agreed--I was then twenty-eight years old, teaching at the brand-new University of New Orleans, and was immensely flattered--and we had a daylong discussion on how I would go about it. At the end he said, "I see you live in New Orleans. Did you ever know Andrew Higgins?"

"No, sir," I replied. "He died before I moved to the city."

"That's too bad," he said. "You know he is the man who won the war for us."

That was quite a statement, coming from such a source; my jaw dropped, and I must have looked as astonished as I felt. Seeing my expression, Eisenhower said, "That's right. If Andy Higgins had not developed and then built those landing craft, we never could have gone in over an open beach. It would have changed the whole strategy of the war." He explained that without the landing craft vehicle personnel (LCVP)--a flat-bottomed boat with a ramp that could run right into shore and discharge thirty armed men, turn around, and return to the transport for another load--the Allies would have had to take a French or Belgian port, something that was nearly impossible because the Germans had concentrated their defenses at those ports. Indeed, when the Canadians had tried it in 1942 at Dieppe, they lost an entire division without gaining one inch of continental Europe.

But because of Higgins, whose industries had built in New Orleans twenty thousand vessels, the Allies were able to go onto the beaches at Normandy, where the Germans never expected them. In fact, nearly every American soldier who went ashore in World War II, whether in North Africa or Sicily or Salerno or Normandy or in the Pacific islands, did so in craft designed or built by Higgins in New Orleans. I came away from the meeting determined to do something in New Orleans to honor Higgins. There was no monument to him in the city, no school named after him, no street, nothing.

Over the next two decades I worked on Eisenhower's Papers and his biography, then on Richard Nixon's biography, then on other books, but I never forgot what Eisenhower had told me about Higgins. By the mid-1980s I was founder and director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans. The center sponsored academic conferences, mainly on World War II, along with lectures and other events. We also collected oral histories from the men of D-Day. Meanwhile, I embarked on a history of the invasion, based primarily on those oral histories. I also got started on honoring Mr. Higgins.

One afternoon, over cocktails, I told my dear friend Nick Mueller, a fellow historian and then vice chancellor of extension at the university, that I had received numerous artifacts from veterans and added, "We must build a little museum to the men of D-Day, one that honors not only them but Mr. Higgins and the New Orleans work force that built the landing craft." We could do it for a million dollars, I said, and have it open for the fiftieth anniversary in 1994. I said it had to be on the university campus, on Lake Pontchartrain, where Higgins had first tested the craft.

I knew nothing whatsoever about building a museum. Nick didn't either, but he thought it was a good idea and encouraged me. He did say four million would be more like it.

Shortly thereafter I was invited to New York City to meet with Peter Kalikow, at that time the owner of the New York Post, who wanted to talk about World War II. After a long discussion he asked what I needed money for, because he wanted to make a contribution. I thought about asking for funds for the Eisenhower Center to sponsor conferences but instead, spontaneously, said, "For a D-Day museum. …