NEW ORLEANS, LA. - Champ Vinet vividly remembers June 6, 1944. D-Day.
“We knew it was coming, we didn’t know when of course,” says the 96-year-old nonagenarian who is quick to add, “I’ll be 97 in a month.”
Vinet was training in Colorado to become a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps when news reached him that Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, in the largest military invasion in history.
But Vinet says the drumbeats of war came to New Orleans long before.
“What World War II did for my area, the lower 9th Ward in New Orleans, was create jobs,” says Vinet. “We are talking about coming out of a Depression, where unemployment was 15 to 20 (percent). And it was hungry time. And Higgins created a huge amount of jobs.”
New Orleans businessman Andrew Higgins was a part of the pre-war U.S. Arsenal of Democracy, supplying equipment to American allies. Once the U.S. entered the fight, his factories equipped the military with a vessel that became critical to the D-Day invasion.
“In the immortal words of Dwight Eisenhower… I can only say that this is how we won the war. Without those Higgins boats, there was no way we could put 156,000 troops onto the beaches of Normandy,” says Keith Huxen, senior director of research and history at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, located near the former factory where many of the Higgins boats were built.
“D-Day at Normandy was the key turning point in World War 2,” Huxen told VOA. “This was New Orleans great contribution to that war effort.”
A contribution repaid in 2000 when the National D-Day Museum opened to highlight the Crescent City’s role in the war effort. But some veterans who visited felt the museum needed more.
“You have to include all of the American experience in World War Two, why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today,” Huxen recalled.
The National D-Day Museum ultimately transformed into the National WWII Museum in 2004, and now occupies a campus that continues to grow in a $400 million expansion. Over 700,000 people a year visit, making it one of the most popular museums in the country. A restored Higgins boat is displayed at the entrance to the museum.
As world leaders gather in France for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that marked beginning of the end of World War Two, the museum in New Orleans stands as a permanent memorial and tribute that closely connects the Crescent City to all who served and sacrificed in the deadliest conflict in human history.
“I do not believe that our museum romanticizes World War Two,” Huxen says. “We try to show the realities. And the realities are pain and death and suffering for large parts of the world.”
“It hadn’t stayed with me to where I couldn’t sleep at night,” veteran Vinet says, reflecting on his service during the war. “But when I was in it, I couldn’t sleep at night.”
Vinet flew a number of missions behind the controls of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator in Europe as a bomber pilot in the final year of the war.
He is now part of a dwindling number from what NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation.”
While more than 16 million people served in the U.S. armed forces during World War Two, today there are fewer than 500,000 veterans remaining who can pass along their stories, which Vinet recently started doing as a volunteer at the National WWII Museum.
“As you get older, in my case very old, the possibility of you going soon is very real,” he told VOA in a recent interview at the museum during one of his volunteer shifts.
“I want to spread the word out first hand. Before I leave,” he adds.
Vinet feels a sense of duty sharing stories of what he lived through, and what was lost.
“Maybe it will prevent it happening again. War has changed. It won’t happen that way. World War Two, life was cheap. We lost people by the millions,” he said.
Some of the insights he shares with visitors to the museum, both young and old, are helping him accomplish one more mission.
“I thank them for asking me because somebody has to remember, especially the kids,” Vinet said.
And they thank him in return, both for sharing his stories, and for his service in the war General Dwight Eisenhower called “the Great Crusade” and a “noble undertaking.”