Thursday, March 17, 2016

War Stories: The National World War II Museum

For many classic movie fans, the films of the World War II era hold special significance. These were the movies made during and immediately after the war, and the conflict impacted every aspect of American life, including film. Favorite stars like James Stewart and Clark Gable left the safety of Hollywood to join in the fight, as did directors like John Huston and John Ford, while Hollywood back home churned out pictures to boost morale and reflect the hopes and fears of the American people. For a lot of today's classic movie buffs, an early love for old movies was fostered by family members, especially grandparents, who lived through this era. Watching the films of the forties is a deeply personal way to connect with the experiences of the Greatest Generation; we reflect on the courage and sacrifices of our elders when we sit down with The Best Years of Our Lives, Since You Went Away, Casablanca, and even It's a Wonderful Life.

 
Another way to engage that era and its heroes - both honored and unknown - is to visit The National World War II Museum in New Orleans. This enormous museum complex takes visitors through the history of the war, on both the European and Pacific fronts, with richly detailed displays and presentations enhanced by a wealth of personal stories and artifacts. I recently had the good fortune to spend a full day at the museum, and I was tremendously impressed and deeply moved by what I found. This is an essential item for your bucket list if you have any interest in the World War II era, whether you're a classic movie fan or not.

 
The museum offers an outstanding centerpiece experience with the Beyond All Boundaries 4D film, which costs a little extra to do but makes for an immersive start to a day of touring. Narrated by Tom Hanks, the film includes motorized seats and props that take viewers right into the action from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo. Imagine Disney's The American Experience but wholly devoted to World War II and you'll get a general idea of the technical and narrative power of this attraction. It's actually worth the cost of admission all by itself. The interactive Final Mission also takes guests into wartime experience with a brief recreation of a submarine battle on board the USS Tang. In the Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo exhibits, guests travel through time from the war's beginning to its end, pausing along the way to encounter artifacts, videos, and themed areas that recreate the many places in which battles were fought. At the start of your visit, you're issued a special dog tag that allows you to trace the story of one person connected to the war; you can check in with your person throughout your day at various displays, which helps to create the sense of a story unfolding in real time, not the distant past. From the moment you enter the train station themed start of the museum to the moment you leave, every exhibit offers a thoughtful, engrossing, and emotional experience.

 
Naturally, as a classic movie buff and fan of 40s films, I spent my day on the lookout for exhibits that connected with my cinematic passion. I was not disappointed. I found a display about Clark Gable's service with the US Air Force, although it didn't discuss the tragic death of his wife, Carole Lombard, who was killed in a plane crash while supporting the war effort by selling war bonds. Her death inspired a devastated Gable to enlist. I also located a display about the war work of director John Huston, who made films for the Army Signal Corps (which you can learn more about in Mark Harris' book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War). In an area themed to look like the inside of a Quonset Hut, I found a truly gorgeous display of pinup girls, including Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Lynn Bari, Evelyn Ankers, and Carole Gallagher.

While the exhibits were rarely specifically about the movies, they did show the importance of movie culture to the era, and a few displays really spoke to me because of the cinematic moments that they mirrored. An exhibit about the Merchant Marine brought Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) to mind; I learned a lot that enhanced my understanding of that film and its particular wartime moment. The bombers in the aircraft exhibit immediately made me think of that powerful scene in The Best Years of Our Lives when Dana Andrews' character, Fred, relives his memories of the war while crouching in the nose of a discarded plane. Every display helped me to understand the history that forged the era and its films, and I came away eager to rewatch wartime pictures with a better understanding of the themes and references that I might have missed before.

I also had a much more personal mission at The National World War II Museum. I was looking for references to the USS Franklin, the ship on which my grandfather, Stokes Albritton, served during the war. In the last years of his life he spoke frequently about his memories of the ship and his life in the US Navy, and I was glad to be the listener to those poignant, funny, and terrible tales. His son, John, was born in New York during the war; my grandmother lived there so that they could be together during his brief trips back to port. It was a long, long way from Jesup, Georgia, and she was alone with a baby most of the time. My grandfather was a gentle man, big but quiet, with a wry sense of humor and a razor sharp memory when it came to anecdotes and local history. On March 19, 1945, he was on the Franklin when she took devastating damage from a Japanese attack less than 50 miles from the Japanese mainland. As sailors died and flames roared around him, he replaced gunners who had been killed and fired until he was blown overboard by an explosion. He spent many hours in the water, surrounded by debris and dead men who had been his friends, before he was picked up by another ship and reunited with the Franklin. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his service.


Almost at the end of the day, as we drew toward the last few exhibits in the Road to Tokyo, I found the Franklin. A video showed film footage of the smoking ship; I wondered where in that carnage my grandfather was when the film was shot. A display spoke of the attack and the legend of "the ship that wouldn't die." Another display honored Father Joseph T. O'Callahan, of whom my grandfather had often spoken. For a moment I could hear my grandfather's voice, speaking of that day, in my memory. I felt as if he was with me again. That moment, so brief in a life that spanned 89 years, defined who he was a person. He might not have been famous, but he was my family's greatest hero, and it meant so much to see the story of his ship in the museum, there were millions of people could consider what it meant. It brings tears to my eyes even now to think about it. For this, and for everything else it does to keep these memories alive, The National World War II Museum will always have my gratitude.

Stokes Albritton

Follow the link to learn more about The National World War II Museum for yourself.
Here's newsreel footage of the Franklin under attack. 
You can also watch the 2011 documentary, USS Franklin: Honor Restored, to learn about the attack and its controversial aftermath.