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A Site Selection Web Exclusive, November 2015
WEB Exclusive story

Living History

Expanding museums are doing their part to place veterans and their stories front and center.

World War II veterans render a hand salute during the parading of the colors to kick off Legacy Week and Memorial Day weekend during a wreath ceremony held aboard the USS Midway Museum in May 2015. The week was dedicated to the 200,000 Sailors who called the USS Midway (CV-41) home and the more than 300,000 lives lost in World War II.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nolan Kahn

by Adam Bruns
The original caption for this iconic US Coast Guard image from D-Day reads "INTO THE JAWS OF DEATH — Down the ramp of a Coast Guard landing barge Yankee soldiers storm toward the beach-sweeping fire of Nazi defenders in the D-Day invasion of the French Coast."
Photo courtesy of The National WWII Museum

The National D-Day Museum opened on June 6, 2000, with festivities attended by more than 200,000 people, including Museum founder Stephen E. Ambrose, president and CEO Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, Tom Brokaw, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

Though every day is a veteran's day for any war vet, the official day on the calendar now has passed. So have a few hundred more veterans of World War II.

Sixteen million Americans served in that conflict. They have dwindled in number from about 5.8 million in 2000 to 855,070 earlier this year. By 2036, it is estimated there will be no living WWII veterans left to recount their experiences.

Military museums are doing their part, as they pursue their primary mission: Make history breathe, then put that knowledge to work for a tangible future. A number of them are growing their footprints even as they trace the footprints of soldiers past and present.

The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, is continuing a multi-phase expansion plan. Since 2004, the Museum has raised $245 million of the $325 million needed to complete its Road to Victory Capital Expansion. When finished in 2018 (the year of New Orleans' tricentennial celebration), the project will have quadrupled the size of the original D-Day Museum, which opened in June 2000, in an area of New Orleans where a brewery once stood.

Scott Evans, principal of Mathes Brierre Architects, the firm working with the WWII Museum on its expansion, says once the institution was officially designated by Congress as the National WWII Museum, "it was a huge game changer for them, and they embarked on the $325-million capital campaign that we work on today."

Be In That Number

Today the museum receives nearly 600,000 visitors annually— "quite a leap from 67,603 recorded in the year following Hurricane Katrina," says a recent account it published of its comeback in just over a year from that devastating storm. The institution is rated third among the nation's top museums by TripAdvisor users and maintains a national membership of more than 130,000, the largest of any US museum.

Among the museum's public services is a state-by-state breakdown of living WWII veterans:

Louisiana is home to 10,472 WWII vets.

A poppy-field entrance greets visitors to the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo. The poppy became the symbol for recognizing soldiers' sacrifice because it was one of the few plants to bloom in the barren battlefields left in wartime's wake.
Photo courtesy of National World War I Museum and Memorial

“There’s no time to lose,” said Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, president and CEO of the museum and its co-founder with the late historian Stephen Ambrose, earlier this year. “We want to be able to finish and dedicate our expansion while we still have members of the Greatest Generation to thank for their sacrifice and service to the nation and to show the world what they mean to the principle of freedom.”

Think tourism isn't economic development? Of the 2.1 million visitors to the Museum since 2000, 80 percent traveled from outside New Orleans, and 30 percent said the WWII Museum was the top reason for their visit. By completion, the expansion construction effort is projected to have a $424-million economic impact.

According to the American Alliance of Museums, there are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than the attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined (483 million in 2011).

Listen Closely

One of the reasons the late historian Stephen Ambrose wanted to locate the D-Day Museum in New Orleans was the key role played in the war by Higgins Industries, an oil-&-gas watercraft manufacturer that became known for making the LCVP or "Higgins boat" used during D-Day. Higgins grew from 79 employees in 1939 to more than 20,000 by the end of WWII.
Photo courtesy of The National WWII Museum

Sometimes the museums are on the nation's airwaves and in its institutional memory banks. The gratitude comes in the form of story preservation. The National WWII Museum alone has collected 3,500 oral and video histories from WWII vets.

This summer, in recognition of the 70th anniversary of VJ-Day, the Library of Congress, through its Veterans History Project (VHP), launched a major campaign to preserve the stories of World War II veterans residing in and around the nation’s capital. VHP, which like the WWII Museum is celebrating its 15th anniversary, offered volunteers the opportunity to interview their close veteran relatives or friends at the Library for inclusion in the project.

Created by law and through unanimous support from the U.S. Congress in 2000, the Veterans History Project collects, preserves and makes accessible the firsthand remembrances of America’s war veterans from World War I through the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war. The project now holds more than 97,000 individual stories. Visit

For the first time, in 2013, high school and college students traveled to Normandy with the National WWI Museum to study D-Day events and locations and pay tribute to fallen soldiers.

Another place to discover or contribute these veterans' indelible stories is StoryCorps, a national organization whose mission is to enable people to record short, often emotion-laden interviews with loved ones, friends and mentors, for later archiving at the Library of Congress. The organization has a special Military Voices initiative to serve the needs of recent veterans from conflicts in the Middle East. Its vast archives also include an interview with Tadashi Yoshii on his 90th birthday, as the Japanese-American recounted his family's internment after Pearl Harbor, and his brother's recruitment to the US Army's 442nd Combat Team, an all-Japanese-American battalion recruited from the internment camps.

It also has a military-themed archive that includes nuggets like this interview with retired Marine Corps Major Donnie Dunagan, a vet who unveils that he was the voice of Bambi in Disney's famous 1942 film. And though Dunagan eventually received 13 promotions, two awards for Valor in Combat and a Purple Heart, and had "holes in his body that God didn't put there," it's Bambi that people hold dear.

"Did anyone know that you were the voice of Bambi?" asks his wife Dana.

"During the Marine Corps? No chance," says Dunagan. "I never said a word to anybody about Bambi."

Nation's Capital

In the Greater Washington, D.C., area, the National Museum of the United States Army is scheduled to open at Fort Belvoir, Va., in 2017. The facility will feature a Soldiers' Stories gallery sponsored by Boeing, and an Experiential Learning Center sponsored by Lockheed Martin. The Army Historical Foundation (AHF) announced in June that it would break ground this year thanks to raising $90 million of the Museum's $200-million capital campaign from the donations of more than 131,000 individual donors, corporations, foundations, military associations, and veteran service organizations.

The U.S. Army Museum is under construction in Fort Belvoir, Va., and will open in 2017.

“We now have sufficient funds to request release of $25 million in congressionally authorized military construction funds to be used for Museum site and infrastructure development,” said Brig. General Creighton W. Abrams, Jr. (USA-Ret.), AHF’s Executive Director. The Army has fought 11 wars and conducted 187 campaigns over the past 238 years.

At the National Marine Corps and Heritage Center in Triangle, Va., near Quantico, construction has begun on the final phase of the National Museum of the Marine Corps. The 126,000-sq.-ft. section will open in phases over a four-year period with the first part opening in 2017. As a part of the overall construction, the Museum will be closed from January through March 2016. But in the meantime, admission is still free, and so is parking.

An exterior view of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, currently undergoing a major expansion to represent the actions and members of the Corps since 1976.

The museum has welcomed more than 4 million visitors since 2006, and was recently voted the region's best non-Smithsonian museum. Over the next several years, says the museum, "the new space will be filled with a giant screen movie theater, expanded education suite, a Marine Corps Sports Gallery, a Marine Corps Combat Art Gallery, and two additional galleries telling the stories of the men and women who served in the Marine Corps from 1976 though today."

The Museum team is also seeking input from Marines and sailors whose history is being told in the galleries. Those with stories and artifacts to share can visit, and a Gmail account at

Artifacts to be displayed include an oil-soaked Marine Corp flag from Desert Storm, election ballots from Iraq, gear worn by Women Marines whose critical role during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom marked historic firsts for the Marine Corps, and the rifle carried by Navy Cross recipient Sgt. Rafael Peralta. 

"Today's Marines have made the same indelible mark on the history of our Marine Corps, nation and world as every Marine who has served since 1775," said Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman, Jr., president and CEO of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, at the expansion's groundbreaking.

Not Flyover Territory

The National Museum of the United States Air Force, with more than 360 aerospace vehicles and missiles, is located on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. As Air Force veteran Chris Ford, the VP of Defense at the Dayton Development Coalition, explained to Site Selection readers earlier this year, "Wright-Patt is unlike any other. It is home to the Air Force Materiel Command Headquarters, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, the Air Force Institute of Technology and the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Because of the diversity of these multiple missions on base, Wright-Patt is responsible for leading the Air Force’s research and development of war-fighting capabilities, and then integrating those capabilities into design, procurement and delivery of weapon systems.

Boeing VC-137C SAM 26000 (Air Force One) in the Presidential Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Photo courtesy of Craig Scaling, Airshow Traveler, and the National Museum of the United States Air Force

"The base employs over 27,500 people directly and another 34,000 people indirectly, making it Ohio’s largest single-site employer," he explained. Its economic impact to the Dayton region is approximately $4.4 billion, and that impact is ripe for growth as the base’s partnership with the community grows stronger."

A new fourth building has been added, requiring the closing of the R&D and Presidential (Air Force One) galleries until the re-opening in June 2016. The move takes those galleries from a controlled-access portion of the base to an area where the entire public can see the aircraft. As the museum explained in October, "moving the Presidential and R&D Galleries to the fourth building will allow all visitors the opportunity to view two of the museum's most popular exhibits including the VC-137C Air Force One (SAM 26000), which was used by eight presidents -- Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton, and the world's only remaining XB-70 Valkyrie."

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert delivers remarks during a June 2015 dedication ceremony for NR-1, the Navy's deep-sea research nuclear submarine, at the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Conn.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird

The National Museum of the United States Navy can be found in Washington's Navy Yard. In May it was where dignitaries gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the appointment of the first Chief Naval Officer (CNO). However, public access is limited to those with military ID and their guests, with all other visitors requiring vetting at the visitor's center. The Navy Yard was the site of a fatal shooting in 2013, and another shooter scare in July 2015.

However, the Naval History and Heritage Command encompasses other museums across the country, including the National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida; the Great Lakes Naval Museum in the northern Chicago suburbs; the Hampton Roads Naval Museum; the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum; the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Ct.; the Naval Undersea Museum; the Puget Sound Navy Museum; the Naval War College Museum; and the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Md. There are also a number of Navy-related museums in San Diego, including the USS Midway Museum.

War to End All Wars

Veterans Day falls on the 11th day of the 11th month because that's when firing ended (at the 11th hour) on WWI's Western Front in 1918.

Three years later, more than 100,000 people gathered in Kansas City, Mo., to see the supreme Allied commanders dedicate the site of the Liberty Memorial, for which area leaders and citizens had raised more than $2.5 million in just 10 days in 1919 (the equivalent of $34 million today). It was the first time in history those five leaders were together in one place.

The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City in 2008 hosted a visit by the last surviving US WWI veteran, Frank Buckles (inset). He passed away in 2011 at the age of 110.
Photo courtesy of National World War I Museum and Memorial

The memorial was closed in 1994 for safety reasons, but voters passed a limited-run sales tax in 1998 to support its restoration, and to plan a museum dedicated to WWI. More than $102 million was raised this time around. In 2004, the Museum was designated by Congress as the nation's official World War I Museum, and construction started on a new 80,000-sq.-ft. museum and the Edward Jones Research Center underneath the Liberty Memorial, which opened in 2006. It finished No. 21 on that same TripAdvisor list that ranked the National WWII Museum No. 3.

The museum in 2008 hosted a visit from Frank Buckles, the last surviving American WWI veteran. Like others of his era, he had lied about his age in order to enlist in 1917. But everyone knew his real age when he passed away in February 2011 at the age of 110.

To preserve the memory of Buckles and of a war that cost the US 116,000 lives, a film project titled "Pershing's Last Patriot" is raising funds. And as the centennial of that war unfolds, an effort continues to establish an official memorial in the nation's capital as well. A winning design is to be chosen from five finalists by January 2016.

In the meantime, the US World War I Centennial Commission is part of Countdown to Veterans Day 2016, a one-stop source for volunteer opportunities involving service to veterans.

The countdown now has begun.

Adam Bruns
Editor in Chief of Site Selection magazine

Adam Bruns

Adam Bruns is editor in chief and head of publications for Site Selection, and before that has served as managing editor beginning in February 2002. In the course of reporting hundreds of stories for Site Selection, Adam has visited companies and communities around the globe. A St. Louis native who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, Adam is a 1986 alumnus of Knox College, and resided in Chicago; Midcoast Maine; Savannah, Georgia; and Lexington, Kentucky, before settling in the Greater Atlanta community of Peachtree Corners, where he lives with his wife and daughter.


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