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Lessons from War

In the darkness of the theater, the numbers appear. They come at you, really, daring you to absorb them:

Soviet Union, 24,000,000

China, 20,000,000

Poland, 5,600,000

Japan, 3,100,000

U.S.A., 518,000

Germany, 8,800,000

These are the number of dead, by country, in World War II. A total of 65 million, more than all other wars to that point combined.

Visitors get a sobering taste of submarine warfare from the feature "Final Mission: The USS Tang Experience."

"Beyond All Boundaries," the much-praised film that is a centerpiece of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, slaps you into awareness. Awareness of a reality that, as the "Greatest Generation" veterans slip away, we are in danger of forgetting.

The movie, narrated by Tom Hanks, its executive producer, is in "4-D." The 3-D is accomplished without needing those special glasses, and the fourth D reaches into the audience — wind blows, the theater's seats shake, smoke billows. The movie like the museum wants to engage all generations; that's why you need that extra "D" these days.

Still, as the film proceeds (it takes us through the Pacific Theater and Africa in addition to Hitler's march through Europe), the actual events upstage any theatrical booms and quakes.

The bigness is difficult to wrap your mind around. But in one section on the brutal Battle of Saipan, when just the center screen is illuminated, with shots of the consequences of war — a woman jumping off a cliff to commit suicide, a GI giving his canteen to a child and a GI holding a tattered Imperial Japan flag amid ruins — there is an image of a shivering Japanese girl, maybe 5, and all alone. It is just a quick image, a blink in the spectrum of this devastation.

But you see her shiver. You can feel it.

Basically, this is what will move you. Individuals. The stories of individuals, of each person, each one of the ones that make up the 65 million dead — along with those who survived, of course. The stories bridge the gap of time and place. And one hopes they will lead to understanding. Remembering. Incorporating the lessons of war into the minds of generations that followed.

That is exactly the mission of the museum, what Stephen Ambrose, the historian and writer, had in mind when he began gathering support for it. Ambrose, a longtime professor of history at the University of New Orleans, wrote not only biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, but historical best-sellers, including "Band of Brothers." When he founded the Eisenhower Center at the university in 1989, its mission was to study the consequences of war. So his first project was collecting oral histories from World War II veterans about their experiences. He collected their words and also thousands of artifacts from veterans as he interviewed them.

All this formed the foundation of the museum, which he saw as a place that would reflect "his deep regard for our nation's citizen soldiers, the workers on the home front and the sacrifices and hardships they endured to achieve victory," according to its president. Ambrose got a lot of heavy hitters to help support the museum — Hanks, Steven Spielberg and state and federal governments. It opened in 2000, and in 2003, Congress designated the museum as "America's National World War II Museum." Ambrose, however, died in 2002, so he never knew of the extra import that would be given to the museum he founded.

From its one original building, the museum has expanded to three and is planning more. Currently exhibitions are organized in three main pavilions around central themes of the war.

The Louisiana Memorial Pavilion showcases the large artifacts of the war and exhibitions about D-Day, the home front and the Pacific. Here you'll find the Solomon Victory Theater, which shows "Beyond All Boundaries"; also the Stage Door Canteen, where the music and entertainment of the generation come to life.

The John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion is where staff and volunteers restore artifacts in public view. Make sure you stop by the American Sector Restaurant and Soda Shop — atmospheric and friendly, with old-fashioned tunes and USO photos.

The U.S. Freedom Pavilion, the most recent addition, features exhibitions and interactive experiences that illuminate the story of a country mobilizing for war. At its heart is the Campaigns of Courage section, with its new Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries.

There's a lot to see in this museum — truly, you need at least half a day, or consider breaking up your visit into two days (an extra $6 for second-day admission), so you have time to digest it all. But there are two other special features of the museum (well, at least two) not to miss.

"Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience" requires buying a supplementary ticket, but it's worth the $5. You will get an interactive experience of being aboard the most successful submarine in World War II, boarding as it sets off on its fifth (and final) war patrol on Oct. 25, 1944. You're assigned a workstation down in the control room — I never did figure out how to work my various wheels and dials, but it soon didn't matter.

Above us through a glass window, we could see the prow of a Japanese warship and hear the buzzing of alarms and the shouting of instructions. I stood looking up, mouth open, helpless, along with my fellow sub mates — a dad and his son, grandparents and their little girl, a young Asian couple with a little boy — as we began to understand we were under attack. We were gaining an understanding what the "final" in the title of the experience actually meant. I had no idea — as the men on Oct. 25, 1944, had no idea. But for them it was real.

The other feature to watch out for at the museum is "Dog Tag Experience," which allows you to follow one person's story through the war. When you pay for your ticket, you receive a dog tag that you can then register at a kiosk in the Campaigns of Courage section of the museum. You "follow" a real person in the museum database: Whenever you notice a dog tag station at various points throughout the exhibition, you can access additional information about the person you're following and his or her experiences at that point in time.


Visitors can get a small taste of how the war was fought below sea level in 'Final Mission: The USS Tang Experience.' TNS PHOTO.
The Dog Tag Experience at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans lets you register to follow the story of one person's experience during the war years, stopping at various dog tag stations to dig deeper into the history of a specific time ó and person ó in the war. TNS PHOTO.