The National World War II Museum opened three new attractions Friday during a weekend celebration that included Hollywood actor Tom Hanks, Mickey Rooney, former Sen. George McGovern, and hundreds of World War II veterans and their families.
The latest phase in the museum's ongoing $300-million expansion, the Solomon Victory Theater complex, is the exclusive home of "Beyond All Boundaries," a multisensory, 4-D cinematic experience that immerses viewers in the story of World War II.
Next door, the Stage Door Canteen offers a taste of 1940s culture and music with another original show, "Let Freedom Swing!" And at The American Sector restaurant, managed by Gulf War Marine Corps veteran and award-winning chef John Besh, visitors can enjoy a menu inspired by the era's cuisine.
Together, the venues are the biggest cultural addition to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005.
"This museum is a leader in the economic resurgence of the city and bringing tourists back," said Dr. Gordon H. "Nick" Mueller, president and CEO of the National World War II Museum. "We already know that over the next year or two our attendance is going to double. Of the people from out of town, half come just to see this museum, and that's before we opened this new expansion. We think the economic impact of this museum is going to be enormous."
Nearly 4,000 people attended Friday's "Experience the Victory!" dedication and grand opening, which began with a procession of 350 World War II veterans and more than 100 active-duty military personnel. NBC newsman Tom Brokaw served as master of ceremonies.
Reflecting on his trip to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1984, Brokaw said he'd thought then, "My God, these are the people who gave us the life we have today." He called his best-selling book, "The Greatest Generation," the "greatest professional accomplishment of my life."
Mueller presented a choked-up Mickey Rooney, 89, with the National World War II Museum's Silver Service Medallion. "We were not just USO," the legendary entertainer and veteran told the crowd. "We were proud to be United States soldiers."
Other speakers included former California Gov. Pete Wilson, chairman of the National World War II Museum's capital campaign; Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs, daughter of the late historian and biography author Stephen Ambrose; Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.; Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu; former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco; New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin; and actress Patricia Clarkson.
Blanco hailed the museum's growth as "a reminder that we can survive great suffering," and a victory for "a weary people who have labored long and hard to restore South Louisiana."
After the ceremony, celebrities such as Hanks, Ron Livingston of the acclaimed "Band of Brothers" miniseries and Bill Sadler of HBO's "The Pacific" served lunch to veterans and servicemembers at a Feed the Troops event. Then, guests lined up for a special screening of "Beyond All Boundaries."
Narrated and produced by Hanks, the show goes far beyond a movie in drawing the audience into the war. The guard tower of a concentration camp, an anti-aircraft gun and a vintage radio blaring the news of Pearl Harbor rise from a pit in front of the 120-foot screen. Environmental effects such as steam and snow also put viewers in the battle, as bullets streak by and tanks rumble past in surround sound.
"It fills up the room," Hanks said. "Phil (Hettema, creative director), Nick (Mueller) and everybody were talking about (creating) a one-of-a-kind experience that would envelop you and engage all of your senses. I think it works substantially well and is even bigger than what was promised."
Leaving the theater, the men who fought the war, who actually lived "Beyond All Boundaries," praised the show.
"I've never seen something so realistic in my life," said Richard Horton of Goodrich, Mich., a World War II Army veteran who served as a tank driver with the 14th Armored Division 47th Tank Battalion. "Everything in this film happened. There's no fooling around here, no actors. Every kid in the country ought to see this."
Robert Frost of Covington, La., served on the submarine USS Rock (SS 274) during the war.
"The show expresses how we got into the war and why," said Frost, a member of American Legion Post 185 in Slidell, La. "It was almost real. They've done a very good job. It's good for posterity."
When the original D-Day Museum opened in 2000, 6 million World War II veterans were living, Mueller said. Today, about 2 million remain.
"We're in an urgent race against time to complete the rest of this campus while we have some of them still with us," he said.
Construction will begin next year on the museum's Campaigns Pavilion, which will record the land, sea and air battles of every branch of the U.S. military during World War II.