Relics From 'The Great Crusade'

By Jon Meacham

It didn't hit him until the end of the day. On June 6, 1944, Elmer Carmichael was a boatswain's mate on a landing craft heading for Omaha Beach. As the boat approached the shore, it struck a mine and was blasted by several German shells; ablaze, the craft then tried again 300 yards further down the beach, only to be shelled again. The surf was frothy with blood, and now the boat was sinking. "We had a lot of dead and wounded aboard and no way to do anything with them," Carmichael remembers. He managed to get out to a larger ship, where he and others unloaded the casualties—and then decided to head back to the beach. They didn't make it. Two hundred men had been in the boat for the first wave of the D-Day attack; 85 were dead. A tug rescued the survivors, and Carmichael staggered aboard. He managed to get his helmet off, and sat down on an ammunition box. "They gave me a cigarette," he says, "but I got to shaking and couldn't hold the match steady."

This week, Carmichael will be on hand as his helmet and his story go on display at the new National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. "I gave them everything I still had—the survivors' kit the Red Cross had for us, my uniforms—because I didn't want it all to be scattered. My dad was in World War I, and it was hard to keep up with his souvenirs. Things have a way of disappearing." The museum and its founder, historian Stephen Ambrose, are making sure nothing about Overlord—the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France—is ever lost.

That June morning was the hinge of the century. Winston Churchill called it "the most difficult and complicated operation ever to take place." Adolf Hitler knew the stakes: "The destruction of the enemy's landing is the sole decisive factor in the whole conduct of the war and hence in its final results." Had Overlord failed, the liberation of Europe could have been indefinitely delayed. The road to victory—and to the new $25 million museum—began about a mile from the New Orleans site, in a factory where Andrew Higgins designed and produced the LCVPs (in military parlance, landing craft, vehicle and personnel) that got troops from sea to beach on a collapsing ramp. In 1964, Ambrose traveled to Eisenhower's Gettysburg farm to interview for a post editing the former president's papers. Noting that Ambrose was living and teaching in New Orleans, Ike asked him if he knew Higgins—"the man," Eisenhower said, "who won the war for us." The young scholar was struck by the force of the old Supreme Commander's remark. "I walked out of that meeting," Ambrose says, "determined to do something in New Orleans to honor that great man."

At first, Ambrose planned a small facility to house the oral histories and artifacts he had accumulated, but the scope of the museum grew as the nation became fascinated by the extraordinary exploits of ordinary soldiers. Two of Ambrose's books—"D-Day" and "Citizen Soldiers"—were phenomenally successful, and he served as a consultant on Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." (Spielberg and Tom Hanks contributed to the New Orleans project, and will be there for the opening.) With the Big One in vogue, money and memories poured in.

Like Ambrose's books, Spielberg's movie and Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation," the museum tells the story of the war from the perspective of the grunts, not the Great Men. The bullet that stayed in Pvt. Kenneth Delaney's foot for days after the landing is here; so is the plastic "cricket" Pvt. Ford McKenzie, a 22-year-old paratrooper, wore around his neck when he landed at 1:15 a.m. There's the diary of Lt. Sidney Montz, who wrote that he "jumped out in waist deep water about 500 or 600 yards from sea wall. Mortar and artillery fire around us... Men were being blown up and hit all around me." And a recording of Pvt. Bob Slaughter's memories of Omaha plays in an oral-history booth: "I looked back at the landing craft and saw some in the water bleeding... I saw one of my buddies fall in the water. They killed him and water turned red."

Built in a converted brewery, designed by the firm that developed the Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty museums, the D-Day memorial sprawls over 65,000 square feet. You enter it through a soaring, light-filled pavilion, with a replica of one of Higgins's landing craft and an RAF Spitfire that flew over Normandy. A succession of sophisticated, interactive galleries follow, taking you from the Great Depression to Pearl Harbor to D-Day to victory. You can walk through a Norman hedgerow and put yourself in the Germans' shoes by peeking through the slit of a concrete Nazi coastal bunker.

The museum's opening may be the last great gathering of the men who undertook what Eisenhower called "the Great Crusade." World War II veterans are slipping into the shadows. There are just 6 million of them left, and they are dying at a rate of 1,000 per day. "The museum will help history remember what happened over there, and that's important," says Slaughter. With voices like his echoing down the decades, we won't soon forget.

With James Gill in New Orleans