The National WWII Museum
Vehicles that Served Those Who Served
They hadn’t come here to fear. They hadn’t come to die. They had come to win.
– Stephen Ambrose
Men served. Women served. Vehicles served them.
Winning the war was willpower, heart and smarts, leadership and being in the right. But it was also the right technology: the Norden bomb site, Radar, degaussing, atomic power and increasingly sophisticated vehicles that proved their mettle in the most challenging times.
A number of these people and materials movers are among the thousands of artifacts showcased at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, designed by architect Bart Voorsanger, Voorsanger Mathes LLC, New York City.
On a six-acre campus in New Orleans’s Historic Warehouse District, the venue opened June 6, 2000, as The National D-Day Museum. Congress designated it the official World War II museum of the United States four years later.
“A dozen or so senators and congressman made sure that we had an unfunded mandate from the federal government to celebrate the efforts of those who fought on the battlefield and supported the war effort on the home front,” says Tom Czekanski, senior curator and restoration manager for the museum.
He notes that the work at the Capitol followed a visit to the just-opened museum by World War II veterans and senators, Daniel Inouye (D, Hawaii) (1924–2012), and Ted Stevens, (R, Alaska) (1923–2010).
TripAdvisor’s #2 museum in the world and the nation, the museum offers visitors a wide-ranging look at the war that took more than 60 million lives worldwide. For those interested in honoring the generation that saved the world from tyranny and fascism, the museum offers immersive historical exhibits and first-person oral histories that take you inside the story of the war: why it was fought, how it was won and what it means today.
The museum holds 10 aircraft, five boats, three tanks, one halftrack, five trucks and 14 other vehicles. The earliest is a 1938 Mercedes Benz W 136 sedan, used by occupying German forces, purchased from a museum in France. The newest is a 1945 LVT or Landing Vehicle Tracked, typically used in the Pacific.
Museum founder and World War II historian, Stephen Ambrose, (1936–2002), Ph.D., inspired and guided the early development of The National D-Day Museum with close friend, Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, Ph.D, a colleague in the History Department at the University of New Orleans and vice chancellor of the University.
Collecting the artifacts began even before the museum was founded in 1994. “When he was researching his books, Ambrose would interview veterans, who would often give him items such as a helmet and show him where a bullet had struck. As he built up a collection of oral history, he also began seeing that these artifacts had to be preserved.”
Today’s collection includes restored and working macro-artifacts as well as on-site restoration. Visitors can view the pieces, viscerally connecting them with history. “These represent the equipment that was used to win World War II,” Czekanski says.
Offsite, you can ride or take a tour (8 years old and over) on a restored PT-305 on Lake Pontchartrain throughout the week, with discounts available for seniors, children, military and museum members (pt305.org). The wood-hulled boat carries a wide-ranging history, from World War II service in the Mediterranean for 18 months to twilight-years oyster service on the Chesapeake. The museum completed the restoration after acquiring the boat from another museum in Galveston, Texas.
In addition, the museum offers online collections, virtual field trips, webinars, educational outreach and travel programs and schedules an annual International Conference. Onsite, a period dinner theater and restaurants are also available.
A $400-million expansion is adding two pavilions and other enhancements. The newest exhibit, “The Arsenal of Democracy: The Herman and George R. Brown Salute to the Home Front,” showcases personal narratives, artifacts and museum content to highlight facets of American life stateside during the war.
“The exhibit’s nine galleries offer an evocative look at pre-war stories, domestic debates, the attack on Pearl Harbor, propaganda, military recruitment, manufacturing efforts, and the Manhattan Project, which ended the conflict,” Czekanski says.
A Troupe of Winning Vehicles
•1943 Ford-American LaFrance Fire Truck – Undergoing a total restoration, this is an example of the most common fire truck built during the war intended for stateside use fighting structural fires.
During the raid on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese pilots targeted the fleets of bright red fire trucks, as the country wanted to debilitate response efforts following the attack on the U.S. Navy fleet. After that day, the brass ordered all military fire trucks to be painted green to help prevent such future devastation, Czekanski explains.
The Museum’s Ford-LaFrance, donated in April 2009 by Steve Owen of Pell City, Alabama, will be restored as an Army fire engine and repainted in its original green color.
•Higgins Boat – When the museum was in planning, attempts were made to find an original Landing Craft Vehicle for Personnel (LCVP), but none could be found, even in their birthplace, New Orleans.
The boats, with the exception of the ramps, were made of wood, so they deteriorated quickly after the war, Czekanski says. “Someone in San Francisco had been using one as a shed, and we heard that it was there with the steel ramp still in place sitting in the back yard.
“The rest of our boat was built by volunteers including people who had worked at Higgins Industries in New Orleans during the war,” he says. “It was inspected and approved by the Navy lieutenant who originally accepted boats at the Higgins factory.”
In the late 1930s, the U.S. military began developing small boats for carrying troops from ships to open beaches. Lumberman Andrew Jackson Higgins had been manufacturing shallow-water work boats to support lumbering and trapping in the Louisiana bayous (and, apparently, selling boats to rumrunners during Prohibition) and adapted his Eureka Boat to meet the military’s specifications for a landing craft.
“Higgins placed his design in an open competition on the Chesapeake, and the Navy thought his boats were best,” Czekanski says. So, this Landing Craft Personnel (Large), or LCP(L), was approved for production and used in the invasions of Guadalcanal and North Africa in 1942.
At first, separate landing craft were used for troops and vehicles, the LCP(L)s and the LCVs (Landing Craft, Vehicle). The LCP(L) was designed without a ramp. “Troops unloaded from the LCP(L) by jumping over the side, which proved unsatisfactory because it’s a long drop,” he says.
But a U.S. Marine stationed in China in 1939 noticed that the Japanese, who had invaded and occupied the country, were using these boats with ramps and noted that in a report to the U.S. Navy, he explains. Eventually, that insight was attended to, and Higgins adapted production to include the ramps by combining the LCP(L) and LCVs designs into the LCVP.
This craft, which is now the most famous of Higgins’ designs and is often referred to as the “Higgins Boat,” allowed infantry or small vehicles to exit through a front ramp. This is the boat type you see in footage of D-Day, as young men gallantly faced down death on the French beaches. Many were, indeed, moments from death.
The LCVP could carry 36 combat-equipped infantrymen or 8,000 pounds of cargo. During World War II, 23,398 of these were produced in the United States, most but not all by Higgins.
Higgins Boats changed the way war was fought in both the Pacific and European theaters. “Previously, navies would have to attack ports, which were usually heavily defended. By using Higgins Boats, armies could unload across an open beach and have more options in choosing their attack points,” Czekanski notes.
This also stretched the defending armies. “Instead of concentrating on only a few entry points, defenders had to cover more shoreline.”
The success of these boats ensured that Higgins Industries would be a major war employer. A small workforce of only 75 workers in 1938 grew to more than 20,000 by 1943.
The Higgins boat also had cultural impact. The workforce was the first in New Orleans to be racially integrated, including undrafted white males, women, African Americans, the elderly and physically challenged persons. “All were paid equal wages according to their job rating,” Czekanski says. “They responded by shattering production records, turning out more than 20,000 boats by the end of the war.”
•WC-54 1944 Dodge Ambulance – Rated as a ¾-ton vehicle, this was the standard American ambulance during the war and could hold four patients on stretchers or seven seated patients.
Ambulances were the only tactical vehicle that came standard with heaters. The body was also insulated with corrugated cardboard. “They understood how important it was to keep patients warm to help prevent shock,” Czekanski says, noting that this one served in the American Army and then the French Army.
“It was donated in restored condition by a dentist in Arkansas who had purchased it, then, after discussion with the museum, one Christmas afternoon, loaded up the family and drove it down in a trailer.”
•1941 Ford GP – Ford began producing jeeps in 1941. As with the Willys MAs, the first Ford jeeps had welded steel grills known as “slat grills.” Many existing civilian components were incorporated into the design in order to speed production. One example is the gauge cluster, which was already in production for Ford civilian vehicles.
Many of the first jeeps were sent out with “lend lease,” in which the United States traded military equipment for foreign bases.
This jeep is exhibited as if on the assembly line with body and chassis separated, providing visitors with a seldom seen view of a key vehicle to winning the war.
•Landing Vehicle Tracked, Mark 4, 1945 – The LVT became the principal vehicle for landing troops on the beach in the last years of the war in the Pacific. It is a counterpart to the Higgins Boat.
In responding to hurricane rescue efforts in Florida, Donald Roebling developed the LVT. His great-grandfather was John A. Roebling, who began the design of the Brooklyn Bridge. “It is an amphibian that does not rely on a propeller; it moves forward in water or land if it floats or not. This made it very useful for crossing reefs in the Pacific,” Czekanski says.
This vehicle was designed by the Food Manufacturing Corporation and built by the St. Louis Car Company of St. Louis in 1945. This vehicle has essentially the same power train as the M3A1 Stuart tank.
•M4A3 Sherman Medium Tank (currently not displayed) – The M4 Sherman Medium Tank was America’s primary tank throughout World War II. Initially developed to replace the M3 Grant/Lee Medium tank, the first Shermans were manufactured by Lima Locomotive Works in 1942.
By 1943, Sherman tanks were on the front lines of North Africa where they proved to be relatively effective against the German Panzer Mk. III and Panzer Mk. IV, but they were thoroughly outclassed by the formidable Tiger, Panther and King Tigers.
More than 55,000 Shermans were produced between 1942 and 1945, and they were used in every theater of combat. Shermans were used not only by the United States but also by Great Britain, China, the Free French and even the Soviet Union.
The tank was often modified and variations included a flame-thrower version, a mine-exploding flail version, and a fording kit that enabled the Sherman to cross relatively shallow water without swamping the engines.
This Sherman is an M4A3E9 built by Ford Motor Company in 1943. The extra armor plates — “appliqué armor” — were intended to protect vulnerable spots from anti-tank fire. This Sherman also has an improved cupola and hatch that provided enhanced visibility and protection for the tank commander.
Liberty is no accident: “We must all remember that freedom and democracy are not free,” Czekanski says. “The great contributions of the World War II generation are given to us in trust, and we at The National World War II Museum gladly accept the responsibility to pass that legacy on.”
General hours are daily, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mardi Gras Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Adults are $28, and World War II veterans are free. Additional details are at nationalww2museum.org or call 504.528.1944.
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