VE Day and the US D-Day Museum

Today is the 60th anniversary of VE Day, the day that signalled Victory in Europe and the end to the World War II in Europe. The Royal British Legion has created Victory Thanks, a (ever so slightly dull) site dedicated to the celebrations, events and activities focusing on the Commemorations.

Many of us forget that, even with VE Day, World War II was not completely over. That would have to wait another four months for VJ Day and the Japanese surrender on 2 September 1945. This reminded me of my trip to New Orleans earlier this year (following on from SxSW) where my good friend Dave took me to the National D-Day Museum, America’s national World War II museum. It’s one of the best museums of its kind.

Particularly engaging is the 200 ft timeline wall of the war in the Pacific. The exhibit is extremely even-handed and honest in it’s approach, steering well clear of Hollywood’s America-saves-the-world trumpeting. Instead it concentrates on telling how the war in the Pacific came about, using propaganda of the day to explain the clash of cultures between America and Japan. The day-to-day reality of the war on both sides is illustrated by audio interviews with survivors, graphics detailing the many huge sea battles, video explaining turning points in the war, displays of weapons, clothing and hardware.

As you would expect the timeline moved towards the development and detonation of the atomic bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But the most moving part of the whole display occurred just before that. Once America had re-gained control of the sea in the region, it began a campaign of fire-bombing Japan cities. We were shown a map of Japan with 15 or 20 cities across the country annotated with their percentage annihilation and how they compared in size at the time with cities in America. For instance Tokyo, about the size of Los Angeles, was 40% destroyed by fire bombing. Some cities were 95% destroyed. The images of the destruction in this short part of the display clearly brought tears to the eyes of many visitors to the museum, perhaps because, like me, this was a part of the war of which they were unaware.

America’s involvement in the war in Europe was handled with a similar honesty. We were told what is was like being an American solider stationed in England (overpaid, oversexed and over here was harsh but had a grain of truth). There is a fascinating display showing the campaign of misinformation leading up to the D-Day landings in Normandy, where the Americans and Canadians incurred such heavy losses. Also the treacherous glider flights made to support the landings, and the eventual march, if you can call it such, towards Germany.

And why should this museum be based in New Orleans? Because the vessels used to land men on the beaches in Normandy and the Pacific were based on swamp craft, and were designed and built in New Orleans.