The Long, Hard Road to Berlin

Here is my latest in The Wall Street Journal.

By Mark Yost

New Orleans

Seventy years ago, much of the U.S. was anticipating the end to the war in Europe. The Allies had liberated Paris and pushed back the Nazis’ last-gasp effort at the Battle of the Bulge. In January 1945, the Allies were on their way into Germany in force.

But how we got there—from North Africa through Sicily and other parts of Italy to the beaches of Normandy—is a story worth telling, and it is told well in the newest exhibit to open at the National World War II Museum, “Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries.”

BerlinThe permanent exhibit, housed in the brand-new Campaigns of Courage pavilion, opens with some important historical background. An interactive map and accompanying narration remind visitors of the task we faced in Europe. There is archival footage of Hitler’s rise to power and a summation of his territorial conquests up to 1942, when the Americans made their first foray into Nazi territory—not into heavily fortified Europe, but North Africa. One factoid that sticks out: The German military machine was at its apex in 1942, with some nine million men in uniform.

Setting the tone for the entire exhibit, the North Africa section, titled “Desert War,” doesn’t shirk from telling visitors just how unprepared America was for war against the battle-hardened Germans. Maps, dioramas, diary entries and informative plaques explain that the North African landings were pretty much a disaster in terms of coordinating ships, men and machinery and landing them effectively on the beaches. But they also illustrate how smart Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was in resisting political and alliance pressure to assault on Fortress Europe in the early stages of the war.

The museum also does much to explain that it was really America’s industrial might—its ability to mass produce tanks, planes and other armaments—as much as its eventual military prowess that defeated the Nazis. And the weapons on display are placed in their historical and tactical context. For instance, we learn from the text accompanying a desert diorama that it was the longer range of the M2A1 105 mm howitzer compared with the German 88 mm guns that made it so effective—able to inflict damage on the seasoned Germans before they got to our inexperienced troops.

The exhibit tries to personalize the war by giving each visitor the dog tag—an electronic keycard, really—of a soldier. You learn about him at the start—where he is from, when he enlisted, and why. That is one of the ways the museum has made available its vast archives of diaries, letters and oral histories. I was assigned Martin Perrett, a native of New Orleans who wanted to enlist in the Navy but was instead sent to the Coast Guard, where he learned to drive the Higgins landing boats that were made here in the Crescent City. Throughout the exhibit, there are kiosks where you check in with your soldier, sailor or airman, learning what he was doing during the landings in Sicily, the Italian mainland and on D-Day.

Perrett, I learned, spent most of his time in Scotland and England, mastering his skills as a Higgins boat coxswain, preparing for Normandy. After some post-D-Day landings in southern Europe, his unit was transferred to the Pacific to ferry Marines to the beaches of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, which the museum reminds us was a bigger amphibious landing than Normandy.

There are also personal stories told throughout the exhibit in a variety of mediums—such as a May 1943 Life magazine cover story, “War Hits Red Oak,” about a small town in Iowa that, like small towns everywhere, was starting to get telegrams of casualties from the North Africa campaign that began in November 1942.

The next gallery focuses on the Italian campaigns, an often-forgotten part of World War II history. This section is aptly named “A Long, Bloody Slog,” reminding visitors with maps, photographs, plaques and archival footage that it took some 20 months to fully take the Italian mainland and cost both sides dearly—the Allies, 300,000 men; the Germans, 400,000. Told well here is the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Nisei—Japanese-Americans whose families were interred back home while they fought valiantly to liberate Europe.

Between the Italy and D-Day galleries is a replica of an Air Force barracks made of corrugated metal. Behind a ragged bomb hole in the roof is a sky-blue screen that shows various aircraft flying overhead; on the walls are glass display cases with aircrew uniforms hanging up. In the middle is a large, interactive briefing table that re-creates bombing runs, such as the costly August 1943 Allied raid on the German ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt that cost the Allies 60 bombers lost, as many more heavily damaged, and more than 500 crewmen shot down and either taken prisoner or listed as missing in action. Among the personal stories told here is that of a B-17 flight engineer who had his foot nearly blown off by flak. The plane’s rotating ball turrets required two feet to operate; we’re told he had to use his good foot to lift his mangled foot into the stirrup so he could continue fending off German fighter planes.

If there is anything to criticize here, it is near the end in the gallery devoted to the final days of the Nazi regime. Maps and photos chronicle the last battles for Cologne (March 1945) and the crossing of the Elbe River near Berlin (April 1945). In the background, a well-done film documents the atrocities that the Allies found as they liberated the Jewish concentration camps. It notes that even a battle-hardened, tough-as-nails soldier like Patton couldn’t complete his tour of Ohrdruf. Nearby and completely out of place is a case with official state china from the Third Reich, and silverware engraved with Hitler’s initials. It adds nothing to the story of the Road to Berlin.

But that is just a small faux pas in an exhibit that is thorough and unflinching in telling how America got from the beaches of North Africa to the doorstep of Germany, some 70 years ago.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

One Response to The Long, Hard Road to Berlin

  1. Ernest L. O'Bannon says:

    The service man of whom you wrote was Marvin, not Martin Perret.

    You gave it as fact rather than just your opinion, that Hitler’s tableware adds nothing to understanding the Road to Berlin. You missed the point, I think. Fact is-oops, my opinion is-it is one of the most interesting exhibits in the museum, and juxtaposed with the rest of the oft told story gives it sizzle. It is much more to the point than, say, the story of the Nisei, and the sideshow that was their Road to Rome, heart warming as that important story may be.

    I am always happy to see something favorable in the national press about N.O. and an institution that has become a destination vacation for veterans and, and the families of those who served during WWII. We locals love the place for itself and for what it has done for the economy, including boosting attendance at adjacent museums. School kids, dragged to the museum every spring on annual daylong field trips, are exposed to something they do not seem to have heard much about at public school: WWII, and that it was not fought before the Civil War, whenever that was! That is probably a good thing.

    You write well and I enjoyed your piece.

    Thank you.

    Ernest L. O’Bannon

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