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World War II museum ‘in a race against time’

The National World War II Museum New Orleans was originally opened 2000 as The National D-Day Museum. | Phocourtesy National

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans was originally opened in 2000 as The National D-Day Museum. | Photo courtesy National World War II Museum

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NATIONAL WWII MUSEUM: 945 Magazine, New Orleans; (504) 528-1944, Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Adult admission is $18 for the museum, $10 for the film or $23 for both. Free for World War II veterans.

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Updated: August 3, 2011 4:49PM

NEW ORLEANS — The National World War II Museum — a fascinating look at the most significant event of the 20th century — unveiled its latest addition this week, the 67th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy.

The public can get a behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into refurbishing and preserving everything from WWII boats and tanks to soldiers’ weapons and uniforms at the new $3 million Restoration Pavilion. As of next month, museum-goers can take a tour of the facility and watch craftsmen restore an 80-foot-long PT (patrol torpedo) boat used in the war.

“We want to get it back in the water and put it through the paces on Lake Pontchartrain,” said Nick Mueller, president of the museum.

After the war, the PT-305 became a tour vessel and oyster boat on the East Coast before coming home to New Orleans, where it was built in 1943 by Higgins Industries. Higgins is a big reason the nation’s WWII museum is in Crescent City. Andrew Higgins created the landing craft used in amphibious invasions that proved key to the Allies’ victory.

Higgins’ story is one of many told in this comprehensive museum, which gave me a better overview of the war than any history class or book ever has.

Visitors can listen to the voices of men who stormed the beaches in Normandy and battled in the Pacific jungles. Compare weapons used on both sides and see how the United States — whose pre-war Army was outnumbered by the likes of Romania — was drawn into the conflict and emerged a nuclear power.

The museum’s “Beyond All Boundaries” film, produced by Tom Hanks, debuted in late 2009. The 4-D movie takes viewers from Pearl Harbor to Japan’s surrender with special effects that literally have you shaking in your seat.

The next big project will be the Freedom Pavilion, which Chicago-based Boeing kicked in $15 million to build. (The museum has several Chicago connections, including Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts, who recently joined the board of trustees.)

The entire $300 million expansion plan should be finished in 2015 — if the museum can raise enough money.

“We’re a little over halfway there and we’re in a race against time,” he said. “By 2015, there will only be about 800,000 [WWII vets] left. We want to get this done while our veterans are still with us.”

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