The War that Changed the World: Inside the WWII Museum Liberation Pavilion

The lengthy development of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans culminated in the dedication of the institution’s final major piece, the Liberation Pavilion, on Nov. 3.

The dedication ceremony marked the conclusion of the museum’s $400 million Road to Victory Campaign that enabled the museum’s continued expansion to seven pavilions and a hotel over the past two decades.

Ted Weggeland, chair of the museum’s board, said that with the completion of the Liberation Pavilion, “we finally tell the full story of the American experience in the war that changed the world.”

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, the first female rabbi to serve in the U.S. military, gives the invocation. Photo by James Henry Brook.

The museum was first dedicated in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum, mainly to commemorate the Higgins boats that were key to the U.S. effort on D-Day in 1944. Built in New Orleans, the boats originally were shallow water work boats for oil and gas exploration, but were reimagined into the landing craft used at Normandy and elsewhere, giving the military flexibility in where they could land, rather than needing to conquer port cities.

From that first pavilion, Weggeland said the museum grew in scope to become a world-class institution on seven acres.

Actor Tom Hanks said at the time, the museum was essentially “two brick warehouses, a Higgins boat and a tank. Now look at it.”

President and CEO Emeritus Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, who helped found the museum with his friend, fellow historian and best-selling author Stephen E. Ambrose, reflected on the occasion. “Twenty-three years ago, when we first opened The National D-Day Museum, Steve and I thought we had achieved our goal to preserve and honor the memory of those Americans who fought on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. The accomplishments of the past two decades extend far beyond what we could have imagined, even after we decided to broaden our mission to tell the full story of the American experience in World War II.”

There were many individuals he wished could have been at the dedication, such as Ambrose, but they are no longer around. Ambrose “would be so proud, so pleased, of what great Americans had done to make this a reality,” he reflected.

Opening the Pavilion

The dedication ceremony began with a lengthy ovation for the entrance of over 40 World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors and home front workers. Over 40 Medal of Honor recipients also attended.

“Nearly 80 years after the end of World War II, we remain ever grateful to those Americans who sacrificed so much to secure freedom and democracy, and whose legacies are now our responsibility to carry on here at The National WWII Museum,” said Stephen J. Watson, museum president and CEO.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, the first female rabbi to serve in the U.S. military, gave the invocation. Now the associate rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix, she served in the Army for 38 years and retired as a colonel. She had joined the Army reserves in 1978 and was ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi in 1981.

She provided the only mention of contemporary conflicts, starting with a reflection “on the horror inflicted on the people of Israel during this past month,” saying that after Oct. 7, “the role of those who rescued the Jewish people from the reign of Nazi terror has been exponentially highlighted.”

She said she is “profoundly grateful” to the museum “for ensuring that the message of ‘never again’ will resonate for generations to come.”

Koppell said about 16 million members of the Allied forces gave their lives to end the Holocaust and liberate Europe. “It is with the most profound sorrow that we acknowledge those heroes today.” The best memorial for them is to recommit to the values of freedom and justice, she added.

She concluded with a prayer for the museum’s continued growth and prosperity, for it to “be a source of inspiration for many, many generations to come.”

Weggeland noted the important support by the state of Louisiana, including being the largest single supporter of the Liberation Pavilion. He thanked and introduced Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, who paid tribute to the WWII generation. “There is no more sacred or meaningful form of public service than military service,” Edwards said, “to protect your country, to ensure the survival of liberty and democracy.”

He introduced the Normandy Liberty Bell, which was first rung in 2004 at Normandy on the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It was first rung in the U.S. at Independence Mall in Philadelphia on July 4, 2005, and toured the country for a couple of years before making its home at the museum in 2009.

At the dedication, the bell was struck seven times, to represent the seven stages of a soldier’s life, Edwards explained. “Taps” was then played.

Mueller reflected on the museum’s modest beginnings, noting that Hanks had been there for the beginning of the museum, and that supporters like Hanks, Tom Brokaw and Steven Spielberg gave the museum a level of credibility that it had not yet established on its own.

Tom Hanks. Photo by James Henry Brook.

“This museum is about war, but it is also about the totality of the American experience,” he said.

While the museum celebrates the soldiers, it also tells the broader story. “Wars are the crucibles of change for all societies, and World War II brought about dramatic change in our country both during the war and after the war,” along with other nations that were affected by the fight for freedom, he said.

Wars “also influence who we want to be — what we are willing to fight for, to die for — ultimately, our values as Americans.” The new pavilion documents those values, Mueller added.

This pavilion “was perhaps the hardest to do,” he said. In 2003, the exhibit designers asked “so what? What will people think 100 years from now.” How does one answer why World War II would still be important.

They had been focused on telling the stories of different events in the war. “This got us back to the question of what it means today,” and that is reflected in this final pavilion.

Gold Star Daughter and Museum Trustee Sharon Estill Taylor spoke on the wartime loss of her father, U.S. Army Air Forces First Lieutenant Shannon Eugene Estill, when she was three years old, highlighting the steep prices paid by servicemembers and their families to ensure victory, and representing the “World War II orphaned children.”

She noted that the pavilion speaks of the celebrations when soldiers came home at the end of the war; her family’s experiences were not celebratory. “They should be celebrated, just as my father would have been celebrated. Today is my father’s ticker tape parade.”

She found the museum shortly after her father was finally buried at Arlington in 2010, and “this museum has become my family.”

Actor, producer, director and writer Tom Hanks reflected on the historic magnitude of the dedication. He said that 80 years earlier on that date, “there wasn’t a human being on the planet who had any idea when World War II was going to end.” The future was “a huge black void with no guarantee of your loved ones coming home.”

The U.S. had no designs on Germany or Japan based on conquest or superiority, he said. The U.S. and its allies “viewed war as the path to liberation,” and those nations are now strong allies, enjoying the benefits of democracy.

“Can you imagine what would have happened if the U.S. and its allies did not take up the responsibility, not to conquer, but to liberate.”

The museum, he said, is a place where anyone can go and see “our responsibility as Americans and freedom-loving people to periodically take up the cause — of what?… of liberty” and removing from war-mongerers “their ability to make war upon their neighbors and the world.”

After a flyover by the Louisiana National Guard Bayou Militia, guests were able to tour the completed pavilion.

Mueller said the pavilion honors “the legacies of the WWII generation and helps visitors understand the relevance of the war today — the meaning of the freedom they secured and each generation’s duty to protect and advance it.”

Inside the Pavilion

There are two floors of exhibit space, and a third floor with a multimedia theater.

The pavilion starts with the sober reminder that 414,920 U.S. servicemembers and merchant marines died in World War II.

As part of the tribute to the fallen, the pavilion has a replica headstone for Corporal Sam Cordova, who was killed in the Philippines in December 1941. He was buried in the Manila American Cemetery, but “without an understanding of his Jewish heritage” his marker was a cross. It was replaced by a Star of David headstone on the anniversary of his death in 2020, and the replica is of the Star of David marker.

The ”And Then They Came for Me” gallery examines the Holocaust in three sections. The first two sections give the history of how the Holocaust developed, and a replica of part of Anne Frank’s Secret Annex gives a personification to the history.

In September 2019, the museum dedicated a statue of Frank in the Founders Plaza, the second in a series of statues.

The third section focuses on the Nazi concentration camps and liberation. Throughout the gallery, there are stories about the liberation of the camps, and testimonies from Holocaust survivors.

The gallery was made possible by a gift from The Lupin Foundation, in memory of E. Ralph Lupin, M.D., BGen LA National Guard. Additional support was provided by Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust; Kay and Fred Zeidman, in memory of 1st Lt. Irving Hubert Selber, U.S. Army Air Forces, and Staff Sergeant Morris Benjamin Zeidman, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

There is also a tribute to the Four Chaplains on the USS Dorchester, which was torpedoed by the Germans in 1943. The two ministers, priest and rabbi gave their life vests to four soldiers and went down with the ship.

Another section replicates and tells the story of the salt caves where the Nazis hid billions of dollars in stolen art. “The Monuments Men and Women” did a “treasure hunt” that uncovered hundreds of thousands of pieces.

The pavilion’s second floor, Goldring Family Foundation and Woldenberg Foundation Forces of Freedom at Home and Abroad (1945–Present), talks about the efforts to hold Japanese and German leaders accountable for their crimes, leading to the first-ever international war crimes trials.

Other sections detail the rebuilding of a thoroughly devastated continent, how the U.S. emerged as a superpower following the war, technological advances from the war, the war’s effect on foreign policy moving forward, and how the experiences of World War II affected the push for civil rights in the U.S.

“Today is a pivotal day in our institution’s history — the end of an era and the start of a new journey,” said Watson. “As we celebrate, we know that there is much more ahead: We will continue to tell the story of World War II in innovative ways, to find new ways to inspire audiences of all ages across the globe and to embrace our role as storyteller for generations to come.”