Tom Brokaw, Tom Hanks, and Museum President and CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller, PhD at The American Spirit Awards Gala at Cipriani Wall Street in New York on Tuesday, February 24, 2015.
When The National WWII Museum first opened its doors on June 6, 2000, as The National D-Day Museum, legendary broadcaster Tom Brokaw and award-winning actor Tom Hanks were already among the ranks of its supporters. It was a natural fit for two men who have done so much to honor the personal stories of World War II, and the beginning of an enduring friendship with the Museum. Both Brokaw and Hanks have worked tirelessly throughout their careers to document the World War II story, educating millions of Americans about our shared history and strengthening the legacy of the greatest generation. During a private awards banquet, held at Cipriani Wall Street in New York on Tuesday, February 24, 2015, The National WWII Museum applauded their remarkable careers with the presentation of its American Spirit Award, an honor recognizing individuals who demonstrate extraordinary dedication to the principles that strengthen America’s freedom and democracy.
The American Spirit Award is given to those who make unselfish contributions to their community, state or nation; lead by example; exhibit the highest standards of integrity, discipline and initiative; and exemplify core values that were critical to the Allied war effort – teamwork, optimism, loyalty, courage and sacrifice.
“In addition to being leaders in their fields, Tom Brokaw and Tom Hanks have served as dedicated public historians, using their respective platforms to bring the stories of World War II to new generations,” said Museum President and CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller, PhD. “They have also been integral to the growth of this Museum and fulfillment of our educational mission.”
Brokaw at The National WWII Museum’s Road to Berlin Opening Gala in December 2014.
Well known from his career in broadcast journalism, in 1998 Tom Brokaw became a best-selling author with the publication of “The Greatest Generation.” Inspired by the mountain of mail he received from his first book, Brokaw published “The Greatest Generation Speaks” in 1999. Brokaw was the only network evening news anchor to report from Normandy, France, during the D-Day 60th Anniversary ceremonies in June 2004. He returned to Normandy for the 70th anniversary in June 2014, leading a Museum delegation to the ceremonies and events and reporting on behalf of NBC. Brokaw has been in attendance at nearly every major building opening at The National WWII Museum since 2000 and has been a champion for the Museum in the media and in the fundraising arena.
Tom Hanks has lent his tremendous acting, directing, producing, and voice talents to an array of WWII-focused projects over the last two decades. He earned his fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for “Saving Private Ryan,” garnered praise and awards for the miniseries “Band of Brothers,” helped narrate the Ken Burns documentary “The War,” and reunited with Steven Spielberg for the HBO miniseries “The Pacific.” Hanks also offered an iconic performance in the Home Front-focused “A League of Their Own.” In 2009, The National WWII Museum debuted the exclusive 4D film “Beyond All Boundaries,” with Hanks serving as executive producer and narrator. Offscreen, he played an active role in the creation of The National WWII Memorial and, as a champion for The National WWII Museum, has been instrumental in achieving its goal to become the preeminent museum on World War II.
“Without the efforts of these two men,” said Mueller, “this Museum might not have happened. Their contributions have been that important to our institution.”
Hanks serving food to the troops at The National WWII Museum’s Solomon Victory Theater opening in 2009.
“From the beginning I was inspired by the determination of the late Stephen Ambrose and Nick Mueller to erect a permanent tribute to honor the men and women I wrote about in “The Greatest Generation,” said Brokaw. “The dreams and determination of these two historians have given that generation and the world an enduring reminder of the military genius, personal sacrifice and political will required to win the greatest war in the history of mankind. It’s an honor to have played a small part in their magnificent effort.”
During the ceremony in New York, NBC’s Lester Holt emceed the event as a taste of New Orleans was brought to the stage with entertainment by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. Throughout the evening, proceeds were raised to benefit the Museum’s Brokaw-Hanks Fund for Digital Access. This fund supports digitization of The National WWII Museum’s vast and growing collection of artifacts, archival materials, images and oral histories – providing invaluable access to these resources for teachers, students and others interested in the study of World War II.
Strengthening online access broadens the Museum’s reach to individuals who may never visit the campus while honoring the distinctive contributions of Tom Brokaw and Tom Hanks to the Museum and to America’s memory of World War II – both in words and film. The Museum’s growing digital archive can be seen at ww2online.org.
The B-25 Mitchell hanging in the Museum’s US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center.
World War II was characterized by an extraordinary spirit of teamwork, sacrifice and ingenuity demonstrated by men and women on the battlefront and on the Home Front. One of the crowning achievements of the war was America’s legendary production of airplanes, artillery, tanks, and other equipment that helped to fuel victory in World War II. The US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center showcases macro artifacts and features advanced interactive exhibits designed to help visitors understand American wartime ingenuity at its finest. Two highlights of the US Freedom Pavilion is the B-25 Mitchell, an iconic aircraft of World War II known as one of the greatest American bomber planes, and the M3A1 Stuart Tank, a 4-man crew light tank introduced in 1942 and used by the US Army in both the European and Pacific Theaters.
View looking over unto a B-25 Mitchell bomber in flight. Location unknown. 1943-45. Gift of Charles Szumigala, from the collection of The National WWII Museum.
North American B-25 Mitchell
The B-25 bomber gained fame in the daring April 1942 Doolittle Raid on the Japanese Home Islands. Lt. Col. James Doolittle and fellow airmen stunned the Japanese military by penetrating some of the world’s more formidable air defenses, dropping bombs close to the Emperor’s Palace. The Doolittle Raid’s B-25s were the only aircraft to bomb Tokyo until 1944, when B-29 Superfortresses began operating from the Marianas Islands. The B-25 bomber served in every theater of the war, excelling in multiple roles, chiefly as a ground-attack aircraft later in the war. It is the only aircraft in Air Force history to be named after a man, General Billy Mitchell, an early advocate for the strategic importance of air power.
The Museum’s B-25 carries the markings of The 490th Bombardment Squadron known as the “Burma Bridge Busters.” Such planes used innovative bombing techniques to destroy bridges that the Japanese needed to send supplies and reinforcements into Burma. This B-25J “gunship” could also bring 14 forward-firing .50 caliber machine guns to bear on Japanese anti-aircraft defenses that were concentrated around the bridges of Burma. Meanwhile the B-25’s 3,000 lbs. of bombs were dropped on the bridge.
M3A1 Stuart Tank
The US Army began development of a light tank in the early 1930s. After a number of models which progressively increased armor and fire power, the M3 series was initiated in July 1940. Provided to British forces as part of the Lend-Lease agreement, the M3 first saw combat with British forces in North Africa in November 1941. The British found the M3 to be under-gunned, but were so pleased with its mechanical performance they nicknamed it “Honey.”
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
The M3 saw service with American forces in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded in December 1941. Feedback from these actions led to improvements incorporated in the M3A1, which began production in May 1942, including the addition of a gyro stabilizer for the 37mm main gun and a power traverse for the turret. The addition of the power traverse required the turret to be fitted with a basket or floor which rotated with the turret. This was the first American tank to include such features.
The M3A1 also saw service with American forces during the North African Campaign. The 37mm main gun which had proved inadequate for British forces a year before was now even more ineffective since German armor had continued to upgrade. One veteran noted, “Popcorn balls thrown by Little Bo Peep would have been just as effective” as the 37mm against German armor. Following the 1st Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment’s participation in the Battle of Kasserine Pass, the Stuart tank was relegated to the role of reconnaissance and flank security. The M3 and its successor, the M5, continued to be utilized in Europe through the end of the war.
Although poorly suited to tank warfare in Europe, the Stuart tank proved effective in the Pacific. In New Guinea and the Solomons, the Stuart served in an infantry support role. Although the 37mm gun was not ideal, the small Stuart was much more practical for jungle warfare than the much larger and heavier Sherman that replaced it in late 1943.
Visitors will recognize the Dauntless by its distinctive perforated flaps, or air brakes. Dive bombing, a popular tactic used on both sides in WWII, required precise maneuverability and accuracy to fly at a steep trajectory and hit a moving target. The Douglas SBD Dauntless was sturdy enough for pilots to dive at a near-vertical 80 degrees. The US Navy’s primary dive-bomber at the war’s start, the bomber earned its reputation — and helped secure victory — at the 1942 Battle of Midway, sinking four Japanese carriers. By most accounts, the Dauntless sank more Japanese ships than any other plane in WWII. More than 6,000 of the SBD models were produced.
SBD-3, Bureau Number (BuNo) 06508, featured in the Museum, was built by Douglas Aircraft Company and served in the Cactus Air Force in the Guadalcanal Campaign, operating from Henderson Field in Marine Scout Bombing Squadrons 141 and 132. In the spring of 1943, BuNo 06508 was assigned to Navy Bombing Squadron 10 aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise for a short time before being returned to the states to serve as a trainer at Naval Air Station Glenview in Illinois. In November 1944, this aircraft was lost on a training flight in Lake Michigan where it remained until 1990, when it was recovered and restored by the National Museum of Naval Aircraft.
Donor Spotlight: Madlyn and Paul Hilliard
Madlyn and Paul Hilliard
For more than a decade, Museum trustee and WWII veteran Paul Hilliard and his wife, Madlyn, have been two of the Museum’s most active advocates and supporters. They have provided transformative support for several Museum initiatives, including the capital expansion, acquisition and restoration of artifacts, collection of oral histories, and education programs.
Paul is a Marine Corps veteran who served as a radioman/gunner in SBD “Dauntless” dive bombers in the Pacific. He turned 17 in June of 1942 and pleaded with his mother to authorize his enlistment in the Marines, finally, in February of 1943, she relented and Paul was shipped to boot camp in San Diego. After more than a year of training in aviation radio, radar and gunnery, he was sent to the Solomons for assignment to an SBD dive bomber squadron.
In the Philippines the SBDs served as “airborne artillery” for General Krueger’s Sixth Army, assigned to dive bomb and strafe targets assigned by the army units attacking the Japanese on the ground. He flew many “Columbus missions,” named this because “we were unaware where we were going when we took off, we didn’t where we were when arrived at the target and when we returned to base we didn’t know where we had been. We did it all at the government’s expense.”
Paul said that when overseas, he knew little about events in the overall war beyond the view from their tent, their short mission briefings, or the unrecognizable sights from the rear seat of a dive bomber. Aside from that, brief summaries were fed to him about once a week in a crudely mimeographed news letter. He states, “we were mostly teenagers and much of our leisure was spent thinking about food, talking about food or complaining about food. The occasional cans of warm beer were a much-appreciated supplement.”
After being discharged, Paul states that he did not discuss the war for 40 years. He states “to those of us who wore a uniform between 1940 and 1946, it seemed as if nearly every man in America had served and so it was so normal, so commonplace, that the subject seldom surfaced.” He stated that with almost 50% of able-bodied men in the United States in uniform, each played an important role in securing freedom. Paul states that he credits “Stephen Ambrose with reviving the discussion and the interest as his books shed light on specific anecdotes, on small-unit-actions, and on the long-lasting impact the War had and was going to have on world history. Once I began to realize that I had been privileged to play a minor role in an enormous event, I became and still am, an assiduous student of WWII. The National WWII Museum has been and is an incredible opportunity to further my interest and to help tell the story of “the war that changed the world.”
The continuous support of Paul and Madlyn attests to their interest in and commitment to telling the story. Madlyn says, “what is so rewarding about [the Museum], is its growth and the enthusiasm of the young visitors, their amazing knowledge of events in the War and their enjoyment of their visit. It’s contagious!!”
Paul says the Museum “tells the story of America at its best and of not only what Americans did during that War to ensure the freedom of millions around the world but to assure later generations that when fascism tackles freedom, freedom is going to come out on top. And whatever we have done or are doing to assist in spreading and trumpeting that message, is done from a sense of gratitude rather than generosity.”
The Collections and Exhibits Department had the pleasure of working with archivist Jennifer Waxman, who we hired for a special project this winter. As the project wrapped up, we asked Waxman, a Preservation Consultant, to share some tips on mold remediation for archival collections.
Our training focused on identifying and isolating minor mold cases at an object-level, rather than on emergency response to a widespread mold outbreak. An important first step is to evaluate your environment and plan a response accordingly. Is there a source of moisture or water that needs to be contained? Is there poor air flow and dust accumulation? Identify whether the mold is active or inactive. Active mold is fuzzy, wet and will smear when touched. Inactive mold is chalky and behaves more like dust. It is important to reduce the spread of mold spores, therefore, you should isolate the materials from your collection area as soon as mold is discovered. If inactive mold is discovered, proceed by cleaning with a brush or HEPA-filter vacuum in a fume hood that exhausts air out of the building. If a fume hood is unavailable, you can clean the object with a brush outdoors. If an item is wet or active mold is discovered, always dry the material to deactivate the mold before cleaning with a brush or vacuum. Once the object has been cleaned, be sure to rehouse it with new supplies and discard any enclosures previously used to house or transport the object.
To guard against mold incidents one should:
Check new items entering the collection for mold.
Maintain moderate temperature (<72F) and relative humidity (<55%).
When Louis Zamperini flew in World War II one of his jobs was to use his Norden to target enemy ships and structures. When he and the rest of his plane’s crew went missing the CO who packed his personal effects confiscated the photos in his locker that showed him in the plane next to his Norden bombsight. The Norden’s technology was a tightly held secret. So secret that bombers were instructed to use their sidearm to destroy them before they found their way into enemy hands.
In theory the Norden could target with an error of 23 m (75 ft). This led to the US military strategy of targeted bombing instead of area bombing as the British and German forces used. With targeted bombing fewer artillery could be used, and bombers could stay at high altitudes, safer from anti-aircraft fire.
In practice, in combat, the Norden was much less accurate than estimated. In combat it had a practical accuracy of 370 m (1200 ft). The Navy used dive-bombing and the Army Air Forces used a lead bomber to increase practical accuracy.
Experience with aircraft in bombing in World War I showed that a major targeting problem was leveling the aircraft. Trajectories could be calculated with knowledge of airspeed, groundspeed, and altitude, using analog computers. But if the plane was not flying level to the ground the calculation would be way off. The Navy contracted Carl Norden, a Dutch engineer trained in Switzerland who came to the US in 1904, to help solve the leveling problem.
Norden was an expert with gyroscopes. A gyroscope uses the angular momentum of a spinning disk to maintain proper orientation. In plain English—a spinning wheel resists turning. That resistance to turning can be used to keep an object going in one direction. Before GPS, gyroscopes were used to measure the change in course of a vehicle.
Gyroscopes held the apparatus level while the bomber sighted his target. A mechanical computer in the bombsight calculated for the bomber. He dialed in wind speed and direction, altitude and heading, and the computer calculated his aim point. One way that the Norden improved upon other devices was that the bomber found the target in his telescope, and then using the settings he entered, the Norden employed a rotating prism to keep the target in the bomber’s sight. In this way it used two angles, one based on altitude, airspeed and ballistics, and another based on ground speed and heading. The difference between these two angles would decrease as the aircraft approached the target. When the difference was zero, the Norden dropped the bombs.
The Norden also connected to the plane’s autopilot. When engaged, it took over flight controls to correct for any change in airspeed and to maintain heading. While this improved accuracy, it made it dangerous for crews encountering anti-aircraft fire or under attach from fighters.
There’s a description of how Louis Zamperini used the bombsight in Unbroken:
“Louie was trained in the use of two bombsights. For dive-bombing, he had a $1 handheld sight consisting of an aluminum plate with a peg and a dangling weight. For flat runs, he and the Norden bombsight, and extremely sophisticated analog computer that at $8000, cost more than twice the price of an average American home. On a bombing run with the Norden sight, Louie would visually locate the target, make calculations, and feed information on air speed, altitude, wind, and other factors into the device. The bombsight would then take over flying the airplane, follow a precise path to the target, calculate the drop angle, and release the bombs at the optimal moment. Once the bombs were gone, Louie would yell ‘Bombs Away!’ and the pilot would take control again.”
Before the war, from 1932 to 1938, about 120 bombsights were made each year in the company’s New York City engineering lab. These were primarily handmade, mostly by German and Italian immigrants. The lab was converted to a production facility after Pearl Harbor, and produced almost 7000 bombsights in 1942. The majority of this production went into Navy aircraft, until in 1943 the Navy declared it had a surplus. At this time the Army Air Forces cancelled its contract with a competing firm and took delivery of everything that Norden could produce. Norden built more factories, and added licensed manufacturers. At the end of the war, 72,000 Norden bombsights were built for the Army Air Forces, billed at the rate of $8800 each.
We have several Norden bombsights here in our collections, and on display. There’s one in The Road to Berlin, and two in the US Freedom Pavilion:Boeing Center. There you can see one in the nose of the fuselage of the plane “Overexposed,” just as the bomber used it. Next to the fuselage there is a Norden in a case with some other technical equipment.
Radar and bombs with their own targeting mechanisms eventually replaced the Norden bombsight, but they were used in the Korean war, and even on bombing runs in the Vietnam War.
Group of recently appointed African American officers. Eleven of these men were appointed to the temporary rank of Ensign D-V(S), and one to Warrant Officer, USNR. February 1944.
February is an important month in remembering the path to freedom and equality for African Americans. While the world was in turmoil with war in the 1940s, significant progress was made in the passage for equal rights for African Americans from the Home Front to the battlefields that further set the path towards the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement. It was the fight for Double Victory, the battle for freedom against the Axis powers abroad and for equality at home, that inspired African Americans to achieve excellence and persevere during their participation in the war effort. Join us throughout the month of February both here at the Museum and online in revisiting the African American experience during World War II and celebrating the lives that still sacrificed and defended a country that often fought against them.
“Fighting Hitler and Jim Crow: The Black Labor Movement During WWII” by Gemma Birnbaum
Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Mortimer Favrot Orientation Center
In honor of Black History Month, join Assistant Director of Education for Curriculum Gemma Birnbaum to learn more about the men and women on the Home Front who worked to industrialize the war abroad while fighting against racism at home. While unprecedented numbers of African American men and women found careers in war production, inequalities in opportunities, pay, and career mobility plagued the Arsenal of Democracy. See how ordinary workers in extraordinary circumstances became leaders in the fight for civil rights.
Panel: “African Americans in Military History” featuring Dr. Allan Millett, Dr. John Morrow and Dr. Adrian Lewis. A partner program with University of New Orleans. Thursday, February 26, 2015 4:00 pm Panel – Arizona/Missouri Room 5:30 pm Reception and Book Signing – US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center
Join us for this panel discussion featuring Dr Allan Millet, Ambrose Professor of History and Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, Dr Adrian Lewis, Professor of 20th Century Warfare at the University of Kansas, and Dr John H Morrow, Jr, Professor of Modern Europe and warfare and society at the University of Georgia. This program presented in partnership with the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at UNO.
Special Presentation: “African Americans in WWII” Thursday, February 26, 2015 6:30 pm Presentation | 7:30 pm Book Signing US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center
Join us for a special presentation as Dr. John Morrow of the University of Georgia discusses how the experiences of WWI influenced both government policies and African American military service in WWII. Dr. Morrow will also discuss the long-lasting effects of African American service in WWII and what it means for our nation and its military today. RSVP Now
Discover more about African Americans serving in WWII:
Learn their stories:
In 1941, fewer than 4,000 African Americans were serving in the military. By 1945, more than 1.2 million African Americans would be serving in uniform on the Home Front, in Europe and in the Pacific. Dive into more stories of the African American Experience during World War II in The National WWII Museum’s online collections documenting their wartime lives.
Tom Blakey sitting at his volunteer post at The National WWII Museum.
On Thursday, January 15, 2015, The National WWII Museum acknowledged a sad milestone in the death of the Museum’s legendary volunteer Thomas Blakey, a former U.S. Army paratrooper who fought in the European Theater. Blakey died at his home early Thursday morning.
Blakey, a retired oil company executive, has long held status as the Museum’s No. 1 volunteer. He donated approximately 15,000 hours to the Museum since its opening in 2000, serving as a speaker and interpretive guide. He also is a favorite interview subject for national media organizations reporting on anniversaries of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, and was recently interviewed by Tom Brokaw in New Orleans and Normandy in conjunction with the 70th anniversary. He was also among recipients of the French Legion of Honor medal.
“We lost a great American, a hero of World War II, and one who meant a great deal to the Museum,” said Museum President and CEO Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller. “He was an iconic figure here and a dear friend. He will be greatly missed.”
Giving his status in the interpretation of WWII history, Blakey’s passing serves as a reminder of the rapid disappearance of the war generation.
According to statistics from the Veterans Administration, the number of veterans from the war has dipped below 1 million, a small fraction of the 16 million Americans who served. The nation is losing these men and women and their memories at a rate of 492 a day.
Blakey was a treasured presence at the Museum, as he typically greeted visitors in the Louisiana Pavilion each morning and shared details of his personal war story, including participation in the D-Day invasion, the Battle of the Bulge and other battles.
Blakey at Camp Mackall, North Caroline in 1943. Image courtesy of the National Archives, from the collection of The National WWII Museum.
Blakey walked through the doors of Museum, originally known as The National D-Day Museum, before it opened to the public in 2000. Of the more than 4 million visitors who have visited the Museum, many were fortunate enough to hear his story, shake his hand, take a photo and hear his thundering laugh.
A native of Nacogdoches, Texas, Blakey came from humble beginnings. His father left when he and his brother were young and his mother instilled a strong sense of responsibility in her boys. While he often told young people they could be anything they wanted to be if they just worked hard enough, he was also generous to those in need of assistance throughout his lifetime. He liked to say he was just lucky but would also add that “what one does with luck matters.”
When WWII called, Blakey answered, serving as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne. In the early hours of June 6, 1944, he landed in a church cemetery and made his way to a small but strategic bridge at La Fiere just west of Ste. Mere Eglise. There he was a part of a fierce defense of the bridge, well remembered in the history of the U.S. Army. After the Normandy Campaign, Blakey participated in Operation Market Garden in Holland and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. When asked what he remembered about the Bulge campaign, he would answer bluntly: “Cold, snow, ice and death.”
During the Bulge battle he was pulled off the front lines to serve as an aide to Lt. Gen. Lewis Brereton of the 1st Allied Airborne Army. After the war ended, he stayed in Paris as an aide to General Brereton. He often told stories of life in Paris after the end of the war and the many challenges civilians faced in rebuilding their lives. He was proud to have helped in any way he could and thrived in an environment where he could act as a problem-solver.
Blakey returned to Normandy eight times after the war, most recently as part of a Museum trip commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day. With every trip, he said it would most likely be his last, but admitted that he would always want to return one more time. He said he felt at home there, close to Americans who fought and died during the invasion. And he had a deep love for the French people who always treated him with gratitude.
Blakey posing with gifts of gratitude sent by CBS Sunday Morning viewers.
Towards the end of his life, Tom revealed a secret he had lived with for nearly 70 years when he spoke to a group of recent war veterans. Tom had suffered severely from effects of PTSD, admitting that it had affected him and his personal relationships for decades. He felt it was important to share because he believed it might help these young men who were also dealing with the challenges of returning from combat. Soon after, he told his story on CBS Sunday Morning, along with how his work at the Museum had finally freed him. Even in his last moments, he was making plans to return to his volunteer post at the Museum.
Blakey would often call the institution a “Museum of people.” The personal stories of everyday Americans mattered the most, he said.
One of his greatest joys was explaining to younger visitors how a child’s toy, known as the “cricket,” played an important role in D-Day. U.S. troops would click the noisemaker, which sounded very much like the insect it was named for, in the darkness when they sensed someone was near. If they clicked back with the correct response, as Tom would say, “You knew you had a friend.” The Museum always had a devoted friend in Tom Blakey.
There will be a public memorial service for Tom Blakey on Monday, January 19 at 10 am at The National WWII Museum in the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center.
Learn more about the remarkable life of Tom Blakey:
Blakey with fellow WWII veteran Bert Stolier and the Museum's Victory Belles on Veterans Day in 2013.
Blakey volunteered at the Museum multiple times throughout the week sharing his WWII story with our visitors.
In June 2014, Blakey traveled back to Normandy for the 70th Anniversary of D-Day commemorations. Here he is revisiting the area around La Fiere where he took part in one of the “costliest small-unit action in the history of the US Army.”
Blakey being greated with great gratitude during his trip back to Normandy in June 2014.
Blakey with Museum President and CEO Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, and historian Donald Miller in Normandy during the 70th Anniversary of D-Day commemorations in June 2014.
The Leopoldville sank by the stern at about 8:30 pm on December 24 just 5.5 miles of the coast of Cherbourg, France. Illustration by Richard Rockwell.
On the evening of December 24, 1944 as civilians on the Home Front began their holiday celebrations, the SS Leopoldville, a ship carrying more than 2,000 American soldiers deploying to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, left Southampton, England for Cherbourg, France. Just five miles from its destination while crossing the English Channel, the troops aboard who were singing holiday carols were jolted by a strike from the German submarine U-486.
Confusion and chaos surfaced on the ship. About 300 soldiers were killed by the blast. A total of 763 soldiers either died in the blast or perished in the frigid 48 degree waters just five miles from the shore of France.
Pvt. Henry Nigbor. Courtesy of Don Nigbor.
Today this tragedy is one of the worst in US history, but it is still unknown to many. Even during its time the news of this Christmas Eve sinking was hidden. Military censors concealed the sinking of the SS Leopoldville to the American Home Front so morale wouldn’t be broken and to keep the Axis from knowing that so many soldiers for the war would never make it.
During the war, at the war’s end, and now seven decades later, loved ones of family members who perished and experienced the disaster seek answers and recognition for the lives lost and altered that day. Today, Allan Andrade, author of Leopoldville: A Tragedy Too Long Secret, one of the few books on the disaster, and Don Nigbor and his son Peter, family members of Henry Nigbor, a private from Dunkirk, New York whose body was never recovered from the sinking, have started a website to honor the lives of the men lost and of the survivors.
The site, www.leopoldville.org, recognizes them and offers the opportunity for survivors and family members of those affected by the sinking of the SS Leopoldville to share their stories and honor them. Nigbor explained that, “There were a lot of questions that were never answered for the families. The troops aboard the SS Leopoldville that day represented nearly all states across the country. People all over the nation were left in the dark about what happened that day. Even survivors remained uncertain of what they experienced.”
For Nigbor’s family they never received an official explanation of Henry’s death or recovered his remains. Nigbor describes that his grandmother Belle never gave up hope for the return of her son until her death in 1969. For many families, this was the case. Official death notices after the sinking of the SS Leopoldville were sent out slowly over months and were vague of details in an effort to keep information about the disaster away from the public.
Sgt. George Robert Atkerson before his time on the Leopoldville. Courtesy of Nancy Russell.
Even for the survivors of this tragedy, lives were still shaken after the war. Nancy Russell, the daughter of Sgt. George Robert Atkerson from Webb City, Missouri who was aboard the SS Leopoldville that tragic day, can attest to the torment her father experienced throughout his life from that disaster.
“Not once did he ever mention the experience, nor the trauma he suffered the rest of his life. Not until 1996 did he ever even mention the name “Leopoldville,”” she said. “After his death, my sisters and I found a diary of sorts that he kept… his exact words in one of the letters was that this ship “was a bucket . . . that had a smell of death about it.”
Now this incident has not made it into many history books, but awareness is building about this tragedy through Nigbor’s initiative of honoring the men of the SS Leopoldville and connecting their family members. Russell describes that, “I am so glad I found [www.leopoldville.org]…My father would have been so thankful to connect to other survivors and finally been able to share with people who had been there. It was an experience that bound their souls in brotherhood for all eternity.”
Learn more about the SS Leopoldville and explore the lives that were aboard the ship at www.leopoldville.org.
Do you have a story to share about SS Leopoldville? Connect with others here.
Last week, The National WWII Museum held a multi-day celebration, honoring the completion of the Road to Berlin: European TheaterGalleries, the first floor of our newest pavilion, Campaigns of Courage: European and Pacific Theaters. The events were attended by WWII veterans and active duty military from all services branches, donors to the Museum’s Road to Victory capital campaign, Road to Berlin artifact donors, and student winners from National History Day, among others. The Grand Opening of this important milestone in the Museum’s capital expansion was generously sponsored by TheStarr Foundation, CenturyLink, JetBlue, and Whitney Bank.
On Thursday evening, December 11, the Museum held a gala in the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, where Tom Brokaw, broadcaster and Museum supporter, served as Master of Ceremonies for the event. Calling to the stage WWII veterans, Road to Berlin donors, and Museum board members, many spoke of the importance of the institution, their connection to WWII, and why they choose to support the expansion of the Museum campus.
Friday morning, December 12, served as the official Dedication and Ribbon Cutting ceremony, led by WDSU anchor Norman Robinson. We were fortunate to have Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, and Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne speak at the ceremony, as well as other special guests from around the world. The ceremony concluded with a heartfelt speech by the daughter of the late WWII veteran Walt Ehlers, Cathy Ehlers-Metcalf, who generously bestowed upon the Museum Ehler’s Medal of Honor. We are honored to be able to display this important piece in the Museum and pay tribute to Ehler’s true courage and sacrifice.
Tom Brokaw as Master of Ceremonies during the Museum's gala.
View of attendees in the Museum's US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center during the gala.
World War II veterans in attendance of the Road to Berlin opening ceremony on December 12, 2014.
The Museum is grateful for the commitment and generosity of The Starr Foundation, CenturyLink, JetBlue, and Whitney Bank, all of which made these events possible. The Museum would also like to thank again our Road to Berlin donors for their dedication to the Museum’s important mission:
During World War II, a sense of civic duty and responsibility united the nation and fueled America’s war effort like nothing before or since. People stepped forward to fulfill the jobs demanded of them, and they excelled beyond all expectations. Civilians on the Home Front who worked to assemble America’s “Arsenal of Democracy” were essential to securing an Allied victory, and their stories serve as a reminder of what patriotism truly means.
The Museum’s current special exhibit, Manufacturing Victory: The Arsenal of Democracy, now showing in the Joe W. and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation Special Exhibit Gallery, tells this lesser-known story of American unity on the Home Front and how it culminated in the creation of America’s mighty industrial war engine. The exhibit examines several key industries whose operations and facilities completely rearranged to make way for wartime production. We are proud to have two of the key industrial leaders featured in the exhibit as supporters of the Museum as well.
Boeing’s B-29 Super Fortress Bomber. Courtesy of Boeing.
During World War II, The Boeing Company manufactured two of the most iconic bomber aircraft. Over 12,000 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were produced, becoming instrumental in the bombing of German-controlled Europe. Boeing’s second contribution to the war, the B-29 Super Fortress bomber, was used to lay waste to Japan’s urban centers, aiding the Allied victory in the Pacific. Now 70 years later, Boeing shows its support of the Museum’s mission of preserving the story of the war the naming sponsor of our US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, which paints the picture of a nation mobilized for war .
Workers install cylinders on a new Pratt & Whitney radial aircraft engine in 1942. Courtesy of National Archives.
During the war, the need for aircraft production was at an all-time high, though incredibly complicated due to the large number of parts and pieces involved. Pratt & Whitney built engines for aircraft that could be shipped for assembly in other plants. Their R-1830 Twin Wasp engine powered a variety of American planes, and over 170,000 of the engines were produced during the war. Without the increase in engine production, the Allies would not have been able to take control of the skies. Pratt & Whitney has helped the Museum immortalize the war’s airpower through the generous sponsorship of the Vought F4U Corsair warbird that hangs in The Boeing Center.
The National WWII Museum is very thankful for the support of Pratt & Whitney and The Boeing Company for their generous contributions to the expansion of the Museum’s campus and their strong efforts on the home front during a time of necessary American production. It is with their efforts that helped our nation at war and that the story of the war is preserved for future generations.
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.