I went to the National World War II Museum. My knowledge of WWII is based almost exclusively on Inglorious Basterds, Schindler’s List, and The Notebook. I’ve generally been more concerned with fashions of the day and Victory Gardens than the actual who/what/when/where/why of the war itself. So why did I visit?
Well the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first and only uses of atomic weapons in war. And this use of atomic force ended WWII, for better or for worse, so the museum is kind of in my wheelhouse. Or at least in a suburb of my wheelhouse.
I headed to the museum experience with the knowledge and interest of your average 12-year-old girl.
I took the bus to the museum because I didn’t want to deal with downtown parking on a Saturday (tourists!) and this was one of the weekends where I have to put myself in road rage time-out and I only get to take public transportation. The bus ride was pretty typical for New Orleans. One of the silver street performers, aka The Tin Man, applied his full-body silver makeup in the driver’s rearview and was telling no one in particular how poisonous the makeup was and how he didn’t want to go back to prison and how he was a real man even though he wore makeup and lots of other glorious tidbits. I should have followed him, but no, I had the WWII Museum to visit.
The National World War II Museum lives in the Warehouse District. It was once the D-Day Museum, but has grown into a fantastic museum of the Smithsonian empire. The museum now takes up several large repurposed warehouses (the old timey brick kind) the brand new Boeing Pavilion, plus another super large, almost finished space.
There were lots of people at the museum—particularly of the Weekend Dad and Kids variety. I’d been to the museum’s American Sector for happy hour (great meatpies and blue drinks!) and a handful of events in the museum itself, but I’d never wandered the wilds of the museum on my own. Admission to the museum comes in three varieties, plus add-ons, but regardless of the package purchased, admission was of near-Disneyland cost.
I chose to start my museum day with a showing of Beyond All Boundaries. The film plays in the Victory Theater, which is located across the street from the main museum. There was quite a bit of temporary construction fencing and other obstacles to contend with walking to the theater. It’s a veritable minefield, if you will. (I’m sorry.) There is a hunk of the Berlin Wall, and also a piece of the World Trade Center, which not to lose my American card, I think is a little weird to have at a museum devoted to a war that ended a half century ago. There are also a couple of luftschuzraume, which are essentially single-serve German air raid shelters—they look like a combination between a hollowed-out missile and a Port-o-Potty. I tried to get a French tourist to take a picture of me inside the luftschuzraume but either the language barrier or my sundress covered in skulls made this a no-go.
The theater itself was super high-tech and comfy. Beyond All Boundaries is billed as “A visual, 4-D experience of the battles of World War II featuring stories, archival footage and advanced special effects.” First, yes it’s visual. Second, I don’t know what the fourth D stands for, maybe smell? Third, there were lots of stories, voiced by actors like Brad Pitt, Gary Sinise and Neil Patrick Harris, and the archival footage was pretty cool, though I honestly couldn’t tell you which pieces were archival and which were Instagram-style pseudo archival. The “advanced special effects” were pretty neat too. I particularly liked the old-timey radio on stage, a fuselage appearing in front of the screen, and the snow/ticker-tape falling from the ceiling.
And I did learn some things from the film despite my force field of disinterest in WWII. I really had no idea how well we played the role of isolationist at the beginning of the war—we really tried to stay out of it. I also didn’t have a clue how small our military was. I had it in my head, as I think most Americans do, at least those of my age, that we were always a military superpower. This is not the case. At the beginning of WWII our military was 18th in size, behind Romania. And the part where the US dropped the bombs on Japan was actually very good (good = unsettling and scary). In fact in my scale of atomic bomb blast recreations, this one comes in second behind the amazing faux-detonation at the Ground Zero Theater at the National Atomic Testing Museum. And this could likely be because the Ground Zero Theater’s blast takes place in a very realistic bunker and the audience sits on bleachers reminiscent of the still-standing viewing stands at Frenchman Flat.
The Beyond All Boundaries atomic bomb drop played out like this: Everything got really, really dark and quiet. Not the normal kind of dark and quiet but the stars have stopped shining and something is terribly wrong type of dark and quiet. Right when the “oh shit something’s wrong” alarm is about to sound in your brain, the flash comes. You will jump. The flash was light of a thousand suns bright. It’s like God is welding and you’ve forgotten your helmet. And then the wind. An actual Dustbowl quality wind sucks through the theater towards the screen while audio of the creepiest breeze I’ve ever heard plays. Then the fireball/mushroom cloud/godhead appears on the screen, looking very much like every mushroom cloud you’ve ever seen.
And then the destruction.
If you’ve never seen after photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I recommend you do so. I will wager you’ve never seen something so disturbing. It mostly looks to me like a cane field after it’s been burned in preparation for the next year’s crop. Except this is so much more gruesome than that. There are whole and partial bodies with fabric patterns forever singed into the skin, crushed and mutilated beyond almost any semblance of a human being. And the rubble. And impossibly bent metal. It is at the same time the most real and surreal version of horror I’ve ever seen. It is The Road times 1000.
A lot of people died in Japan during WWII. A lot. Both civilian and soldier. Now remember, my knowledge of WWII is severely limited. Japan and its allies were the Axis powers. The US, Soviet Union (yep, they were once on Team America), England, et al., were the Allied powers. The war was taking place in essentially two locations: Europe and the Pacific. By the time the US dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, the Allied Forces had won in Europe. And despite massive deaths and an almost assured defeat, the Japanese would not stop in the Pacific. Stop it Japan. Not only would they not stop, they fought, and the Allied Forces thought they would continue to fight, to the death. Suicide warriors. Kamikazes. And a lot of civilians were getting killed. So the Allied Forces in general and the US specifically turned to atomic weapons.
Little Boy and Fat Man were the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and they were the second and third man-made atomic explosions, ever. Yes, ever. Before we dropped the bombs on Japan, we had had exactly one trial run with this awesome power, and it had only occurred three weeks earlier in the form of The Gadget, a device detonated in the Trinity Test in New Mexico as part of the Manhattan Project. Until 1945 atomic blasts were the stuff of the gods.
Just so that we’re clear:
- July 16, 1945: The Device1
- August 6, 1945: Little Boy
- August 9, 1945: Fat Man
That’s three weeks between the very first man-made atomic blast and our destruction of a city with nearly a quarter of a million people. Three weeks.
What the hell were we thinking? I mean really?
And get this: Little Boy was a completely different type of nuclear weapon than what we’d tested in the one previous test.
Little Boy was a gun-type nuclear weapon. This means that a non-nuclear explosion was used to force a hollow piece of subcritical (before the chain reaction), Uranium-235 into a solid target of Uranium-235, creating a nuclear chain reaction. No full-scale test for this type of detonation had been conducted before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Cockiness, much?
The Device and Fat Man were implosion-type plutonium weapons. Basically, a subcritical sphere of plutonium was placed at the center of a sphere of non-nuclear explosives. The non-nuclear explosives were detonated, creating an intense pressure on the plutonium core, increasing the plutonium’s density and causing it to go supercritical (increasing rate of fission or a chain reaction that’s moving faster and faster), starting a nuclear chain reaction.
We still don’t really know exactly how many people were killed as a direct result of Little Boy and Fat Man. Hiroshima and Nagasaki lost between 150,000 and 250,00 people within the two months following the bombings, with half of those deaths occurring on the first day. Of the deaths, it is estimated that between 90,000 and 150,000 people died from initial flash burns, with the remainder dying from things falling on them or other related causes. Most of the dead were civilians. Can you even wrap your head around that number of deaths? I can’t.
The following months and years brought additional deaths caused by burns and radiation sickness, and eventually cancers.
So would it have been better or worse had we not dropped the bombs? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. But I assume the Allied Forces thought we’d reached a point of no return and that things were going to get worse and worse. So, to prevent even more deaths, they dropped the bombs. Or at least that’s the story I tell myself instead of facing the America as nuclear cowboy trope.
I really don’t know where I fall on this one.
But the bombings did end the war, so there’s that.
After the bombs dropped and the destruction blanketed the screen, the mood shifted completely. A tickertape parade, complete with actual confetti falling on the audience, old-timey “Victory!” headlined newspapers display and the world just generally rejoicing in the end of the war are shown. I still cannot reconcile the shift in the film in my brain, let alone how it must have been in reality.
I headed back to the museum proper and began to explore the exhibits, and guys? It was boring.
Instead of making my way through a series of exhibits that would probably not make it through my force field of disinterest, I entered through the exit.
The last exhibit in the museum is Shatterer of Worlds: The Atomic Bomb, and overall, it was super underwhelming. The entire exhibit is literally half the size of my bedroom, and consists of one of those timelines that’s essentially a fancy wallpaper border, wrapping around two walls, with photos and paragraphs pasted near the appropriate year. The timeline started at 1941 (which come on guys, even a mention of the incredible earlier events would have been nice; i.e., Marie Curie, Neils Bohr, X-Rays, etc.) and ended in 1945 (which again, I know this is a museum focusing on WWII, but you had chunks of the Berlin Wall and World Trade Center outside; you couldn’t even allude to the Atomic Age that essentially started because of all of this?) with the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. WWII Museum, I am disappointed.2
This is essentially the entire exhibit. With some dude’s head.
The room also has a video on one monitor, playing in a loop which was so inconsequential (or I’d seen it before, I honestly can’t remember) that I have no idea what it was. I certainly didn’t learn anything from it. The one cool thing in the exhibit was the piece of Trinititie, which is basically what happens when the earth melts in an atomic blast. It would make a very cool pendant.
Also of note in the Shatterer of Worlds room was the in her late-thirties Japanese American woman and two pre-teen girls. She was absolutely drilling them on their atomic history. She asked which bomb was dropped on which city, the name of the research project (Manhattan) and, I shit you not, how the bombs worked. To my surprise, the girls provided fabulous answers to each and every question. I really wanted to ask her why she was drilling the girls on this topic but for some reason, asking anyone about anything atomic feels way too personal to me. In my head, the drilling was to ensure that the girls were interested in WWII. And so that maybe, just maybe when the girls don’t wind up as 34-year-old atomic tourists who don’t know a thing about WWII.
1 We were so unsure of how an atomic explosion would play out, that we actually lowered The Device from its 100-foot tall test tower because of fears that it would ignite the earth’s atmosphere and end all life on the planet. Good thing we went ahead with the test.
2 I am disappointed, but I get it. Atomic anything is controversial. And a whole lot of other stuff happened in the war. And I’m sure the rest of the museum has tons of very interesting exhibits, but WWII just isn’t my bag. So, yes I’m disappointed in the museum’s coverage of the atomic aspect, but overall I think the museum is great and does a spectacular job. Just not with atomic stuff.