National WWII Museum keeps history alive for younger generations

Veterans Voices

NEW ORLEANS (BRPROUD) — Louisiana has a special advantage when it comes to the nation’s history. With the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, people of all walks of life can get an up-close look at the conflict. As the generation alive during the war leaves, the younger generations are in need of reminding what happened.

This year is the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Since the attack, an entire lifetime has gone by.

Now with fewer people able to give their first-hand accounts of the war, museums are left to recount history. The National WWII Museum takes pride in continuing to expand its exhibitions and educational reach.

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For Tom Czekanski, the museum is personal. His dad, Alphonse, served in the Second World War and now his uniform hangs on display. Czekanski said he didn’t realize the significance of what his father had been through in Normandy and Pearl Harbor until years later.

“He was sitting in the mess hall. He had gotten up early. He was a corporal and there was a table for noncommissioned officers and they were drinking their coffee when Japanese planes flew over… the barracks,” Czekanski said. “I remember him saying there were several men in his company who were killed while they were still asleep.”

Czekanski’s aunts and uncles also served in the war, which inspired him to enlist in the reserves. He was on active duty in the ’80s.

The museum highlights the American experience during World War II — from the battles soldiers fought to how families handled changes back home.

“I think the largest story that runs throughout is that the people in WWII were average individuals like you and I are today,” Czekanski said. “We tell the story not as much as the generals and the grand strategies but with the individual.”

He said the goal of the museum is to show the facts of history and allow younger folks to reflect on the tragedy of war and how the country rallied together in challenging times.

“It’s critical for Americans to remember that at one point in our history we did all come together. We set politics aside and we all came together for the greater good of the country and the world,” Czekanski said. 

As the state recovers from the pandemic, more school tours are coming through the doors. The museum also provides online resources for teachers to better help them teach about the war. 

What started as a small collection to recognize New Orleans native Andrew Jackson Higgins for his efforts in the war creating Higgins boats, it is now a federally recognized institution.

“When we first opened we used to see a lot more veterans and the veterans would often come with their families and their children and grandchildren and tour the museum,” Czekanski said. “They would learn about what their grandparents did during the war. As time has gone on there are less and less veterans who are able to travel.”

The museum has been growing for decades. A new exhibit based around the holocaust and liberation of concentration camps is now under construction.

Every day for twenty years Czekanski has walked through the doors of the museum and passed by his father’s uniform. To him, keeping the mission of the museum alive is an honor, celebrating those he has met along the way.

“The hardest part of this job is that those people are all passing away but it’s an honor for me to be able to work here and to make sure their story is told,” Czekanski said.

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