The Longest Day: National WWII Museum attempts to preserve D-Day history

Photos from the invasion of Normandy include infantry men scrambling for position and an overall shot of allied landing craft on the Normandy beach on June 6, 1944. D-Day was the beginning of the end of World War II.

Courtesy National WWII Museum

Photos from the invasion of Normandy include infantry men scrambling for position and an overall shot of allied landing craft on the Normandy beach on June 6, 1944. D-Day was the beginning of the end of World War II.

Some of the stories of Rangers climbing the cliffs and seeing their buddies fall, and they keep going because they had an objective. Some of them missed the drop zone and got lost. They all had a goal: ‘Come hell or high water, we’re going to win this thing.’”

Rick Van Horn

Commandor of American Legion Post 14

photo

“The Longest Day” remains No. 1 among D-Day movies, but it was “Saving Private Ryan” that so brutally depicted the bloody invasion of Normandy on that fateful sixth day of June, 1944, and engrained the historic date into the minds of a new generation.

photo

Pete Gargulinski, left, quartermaster of VFW Post 3516, talks about the importance of June 6, 1944, with Steve Morrison. Both men retired from the U.S. Navy and are veterans of the Vietnam War.

With a gruesome 20-minute assault scene, the 1998 movie starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg showed the harsh reality of what went down in the first few hours of hitting Utah, Sword, Omaha, Juno and Gold beaches.

“You want to know about D-Day, you watch ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ That was realistic,” said Pete Gargulinski, quartermaster of VFW Post 3516 in Kingman and 20-year U.S. Navy retiree. “Normandy was bloody. People don’t realize what it took to make it.”

D-Day will forever strike a sad chord in the hearts of Americans, raise the hairs on our arms and instill a sense of patriotism in remembrance of the thousands of men who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom.

It’s the 73rd anniversary of the strategic assault – code-named Operation Overlord – that gave allied forces a toehold in Europe and turned the tide in World War II. Like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the day will never be forgotten.

“What these guys went and did. They put their lives right on the line and they knew it,” said Rick Van Horn, commander of American Legion Post 14 who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1980-83.“There wasn’t anything you could do. It helped stop the war, but a lot of guys paid the ultimate price. Don’t let it fade away.”

History preserved

That’s the purpose of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, which opened a new exhibit, “Arsenal of Democracy: The Herman and George Brown Salute to the Home Front.”

Occupying nine galleries at the museum, the exhibit tells the story of the road to war and the home front, drawing on personal narratives, evocative artifacts and immersive environments to portray various facets of life in America during World War II.

There’s an Arizona connection with models of German warships built by Mitzume Takayama, who was an architecture student when he and his family were ordered into a Japanese internment camp at Gila River.

He worked in a model shipbuilding shop during his incarceration, where he built intricately designed ships using actual blueprints of the German battleship “Tirpitz” and a cruiser. The models were used to help the U.S. military’s identification training program.

Rob Citino, senior historian of the National WWII Museum, said the museum coordinates educational programs with middle schools and high schools to keep alive the memory of the estimated 407,300 U.S. soldiers who died in the war.

The museum reached more than 100,000 students with an “electronic field trip” for the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, with students watching the ceremony on video monitors in the classroom.

“That’s the museum’s charge,” said Citino, who published several books on World War II during his 23 years as a professor at University of North Texas. “I think there’s a real determination for us to reach people who are fascinated with World War II and maybe those who weren’t really involved in it, or haven’t seen many movies.

“We think World War II is an American story and that’s what we concentrate on here, but’s it’s also a universal story,” he said.

D-Day interest

The former university professor said World War II history has always maintained a foothold among a certain cadre of his students.

“Saving Private Ryan” was an important event in stoking interest in D-Day among younger Americans, he added.

“Very few of us get faced with a do-or-die situation. You get up and go to work and come home,” he said. “It’s an American story and will always reach out as an epic, larger-than-life story.”

Western allies, under Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, meticulously worked out a plan to attack German machine-gunners in fortified positions. Troops would be supported by heavy air attack and airborne infantry.

However, German resistance was tougher than expected.

“Some of the stories of Rangers climbing the cliffs and seeing their buddies fall, and they keep going because they had an objective,” Van Horn of American Legion said. “Some of them missed the drop zone and got lost. They all had a goal: ‘Come hell or high water, we’re going to win this thing.’”

VFW’s Gargulinski ranks D-Day second only to Pearl Harbor in U.S. military history. It was the beginning of Hitler’s downfall.

“They had a bitch of a time getting through. Even the tanks had a hard time,” he said. “That’s the way it was. The beach was so protected, machine-gun mounts all over the damn place. These guys had a hard time just getting onto the beach.”