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New building opens at National WWII Museum

Jan. 11, 2013 - 09:27AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 11, 2013 - 09:27AM  |  
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NEW ORLEANS — Since the National World War II Museum opened in 2000, it has accumulated plenty of weapons of war, including airplanes, Jeeps and tanks. The latest building, opening this weekend, will give the museum a chance to show off some of the biggest, including a 30,160-pound airplane and a Sherman tank.

Unlike other buildings in the museum complex, this pavilion, a glass-fronted structure formally known as the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, has no narrative line. Instead, it was designed to show off what Gordon "Nick" Mueller, the museum's president and chief executive officer, calls "macro artifacts" from the museum's holdings that, he said, "project American strength and values."

The idea driving this part of the museum, Mueller said during a recent tour of the new building, came from a 1940 speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt, in which the president declared the United States had to become "the great arsenal of democracy." After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States rose to that challenge, and Mueller said he wanted this building to show the results.

The proof was all around him. Six massive planes and bombers hung from the ceiling. Off in a corner was a mockup of a World War II submarine that will offer a high-tech, make-believe ride beneath the sea. Among the "macro artifacts" scheduled to be added to the vast main floor are a halftrack and the fuselage of a B-24 bomber.

"All the tools of war — land, sea and air," museum spokeswoman Clem Goldberger said.

This panoply of military might will be dedicated Saturday in a 9 a.m. ceremony that will be closed to the public. Tom Brokaw, the NBC newsman and author of "The Greatest Generation," will be the master of ceremonies. In addition to public and museum officials, speakers will include Irene Inouye, the widow of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who was a World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient; and Roscoe Brown Jr., one of the legendary African-American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

There will be a flyover of four World War II-vintage airplanes between 10:45 and 11 a.m., said Stephen Watson, the museum's vice president and chief operating officer.

The public can start inspecting the 26,540-square-foot pavilion on Sunday. The museum entry fee will admit visitors to the building, Goldberger said, but a simulated ride on the submarine Tang will cost $5 extra.

The Freedom Pavilion is at the back of the tract across Andrew Higgins Drive from the museum's original building. To reach it, visitors will have to walk past the site where the museum's next project, Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters, is being built. That $33 million pavilion is expected to open in the spring of 2014.

Voorsanger Mathes is the architectural firm for the Freedom Pavilion and every other part of the museum's $300 million expansion. The general contractor is Woodward Design + Build; Gallagher & Associates designed the exhibits.

The Freedom Pavilion's dominant feature is a floor-to-ceiling sheet of glass that will let visitors see the airplanes hanging by steel cables from the ceiling, which is 96 feet above the building's concrete floor. The biggest is the Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, a 30,160-pound plane nicknamed My Gal Sal. Hovering nearby are the General Motors TBM-3 Avenger, similar to the plane that President George H.W. Bush flew in the Pacific Theater, and the North American P-51D Mustang, a replica of the aircraft flown by the Tuskegee Airmen.

Visitors can do more than gaze upon these leviathans. Catwalks provide close-up looks, and controls attached to video consoles provide a virtual tour of each plane's cockpit.

More interactive displays are in a darkened space called Command Central that is just off one of the elevated walkways. Three tabletops have two high-definition monitors apiece where visitors can navigate through 15 major battles and campaigns that helped bring about an Allied victory.

In that war, 464 service members were awarded the Medal of Honor, 266 of them posthumously. Their photographs adorn two high walls, and museum visitors can read their stories via a touch-screen system.

In a sharp contrast to the exhibits on the air war is a display called Final Mission, in which 27 visitors at a time can, through a wraparound screen and sound and motion effects, get an idea of what it was like aboard the submarine Tang on its last mission. The Tang was engaged in a battle with Japanese ships; the floor vibrates when a torpedo is fired. The last torpedo went awry, circled back and hit the Tang, which sank to the sea bottom, 180 feet below.

Of the 87 crewmen, only nine survived, said Keith Huxen, the museum's director of research and history.

During the war, leaders and service members were constantly confronted with ethical questions, ranging from big topics — dropping the atomic bomb and forcing Japanese-American citizens into internment camps, for example — to personal issues, such as a black soldier's quandary over whether to try once again to enlist after a racist officer turned him away.

Ten such situations are presented on two large screens in the atrium. In keeping with this exhibit's title — "What Would You Do?" — spectators get a chance to vote on tablets, and the responses are tabulated and posted.

The exhibits are big — outsize, even — and Mueller acknowledged that. "We think this is one of the biggest stories in American history," he said, "and we have to tell it right."

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