Hidden history uncovered at the National WW II Museum - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Hidden history uncovered at the National WW II Museum

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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A visit to the National World War II Museum opens up a window to the past, but it's what's behind closed doors that may be even more interesting. There is a path to the museum's hidden history.

"They all come here - Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium," said longtime volunteer Gaston Andre. "The museum's campus is growing, and so we expect to be here for a long time."

At the museum, visitors are accustomed to displays cordoned off and kept under glass, but what you see is just a small amount of what's actually there.

"We have about 150,000 artifacts in our collection. This is where about 95 percent of them are," said Toni Kiser, assistant director of Collections and Exhibits.

Behind a plain door, shelves upon shelves and nondescript cabinets house a treasure trove of hidden history.

"I don't know. It will be a surprise. Let's see what's in here," Kiser said as we dug around. "We can figure out the stories of where people went and what they were doing and how they were getting it done."

As the objects await their day to go on display, the pieces are carefully cataloged and stored. Eventually, they are rotated into standing displays or special exhibitions.

"We do a lot to try to make sure that this is not static," Kiser said.

Kiser pulled an ornate silver tea pot from its archival storage box and said.

"You can see the emblem - the Third Reich emblem, and then the initials A.H., so we call this Hitler's teapot, but the truth is, it would have been in that building," Kiser said. "It was a special emblem for that building, but it is possible that he certainly drank tea or was served tea out of this teapot."

The teapot is not the only item in the vault from the Chancellery building.

"This is a collection of items that came from Hitler's desk," Kiser said. "So this is an ink blotter. The guy that picked it up he wrote on it, 'Hitler's blotter.'"

"Behind the Lines" is a special all-day tour that takes visitors into the vault with a curator to get an up close and personal view of the things they are most interested in without waiting for a special exhibit. Medical equipment, footwear and firearms are to be expected, but some individual items really stand out. A full bottle of champagne from 1943 and a fishing spear from the South Pacific belonging to Medal of Honor recipient Jefferson DeBlanc. After crashing in the Pacific and swimming to an island, DeBlanc traded his belt buckle for the spear.

"They basically just pulled on each other's things until they both acquiesced," Kiser said. Kiser said the military taught pilots not to just let tribesmen take things from them, but to trade. Kiser said, "(DeBlanc) kept that with him the whole time. It's 8 feet long, so it must have been quite a feat to continue to get it in rescue vehicles and he came back in a submarine at one point."

Speaking of watercraft, in the Restoration Pavilion you can see an actual PT Boat in production.

"You can put your hands on a piece of history that's coming to life," said Andre. The volunteer of thirteen years shows off the Patrol Torpedo Boat. He said, "You will be able to give it the gas and there's going to be a steering wheel on it."

The mahogany boat, built by Higgins' City Park facility in 1943, is a rare find.

"War was over. A wooden boat - everybody was in a good mood, so instead of bringing them back they burnt them," Andre said.

This one just happened to be in the states for refitting after a tour in the Mediterranean. Though the PT Boats were not as instrumental as the Higgins landing craft, they played a major role in the war.

"These boats were the first that were thrown into the breach after the war started," Andre said. "December 7, 1941 the iron boats were at the bottom of Pearl Harbor."

There is a chance to take a seat as you take in "Beyond All Boundaries." The 4D experience narrated by Tom Hanks is one stop on the tour. The day ends with dinner and a performance at the Stage Door Canteen.

"I think it really helps people to understand the sacrifices of the greatest generation when they understand some of the conditions under which they fought for our democracy for freedom," said Tom Czekanski, director of Collections and Exhibits at the museum.

Five men spent eight to 10 hours a day in this tiny space in a tank.

"The driver down here and the machine gunner over there; the gunner here; you're standing where the tank commander stands and I'm sitting where the loader was," Czekanski said, describing how uncomfortable the conditions were inside the tanks.

"Of course, in the summer it's very hot and in the winter it's very cold and there's certain times of the year when things are just wrong," he said. "The outside of the tank is very cold, and so if you are all closed up and you got five guys sitting in here all breathing there's a lot of moisture that ends up condensing on the top of the tank and it can either rain or the entire interior of the tank gets covered in frost."

Czekanski believes the behind-the-scenes access gives visitors a special perspective.

"We'd love to have everybody climb in the tank, but practically it's just not possible," he said.

"You get to be real close to the objects that helped win the war and they are real," Andre said. You get to touch them and feel them and they explain to you how they work."

"This is sort of a great way to connect people with someone's personal history through a three-dimensional piece," Kiser said.

"Behind the Lines" or front of the house, Czekanski hopes visitors make a connection with their personal history.

"The National World War II Museum is a very special place for me. I've been here 13 years. I had a father who served with the 82nd Airborne at Normandy, my uncle was in the 2nd Armored Division in Europe, an aunt who was with the Coast Guard, my mother worked for Baldwin Piano Company and they made wings for gliders," Czekanski said. "So when every day I come here and help remember our greatest generation I'm remembering all of them."

The "Behind the Lines" tours will take place each Friday beginning Feb. 21. You can find out more by clicking here.

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