Stephen Ambrose, (1936-2002) PhD, inspired and guided the early development of The National D-Day Museum with his close friend, Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, PhD, a colleague in the History Department at the University of New Orleans and Vice Chancellor of the University. Ambrose’s role as founder of the institution that would later become The National WWII Museum was strengthened in many ways by his celebrity as a bestselling historian who was sought after as a speaker and film consultant.
His notable works included D-Day, Citizen Soldiers and Band of Brothers, all exploring major episodes and themes from WWII history, as well as books on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, and biographies of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. Ambrose was a consultant to the blockbuster Normandy invasion film Saving Private Ryan, won an Emmy as a producer of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, and served as a commentator for the Ken Burns documentary Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. He received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton, and during opening ceremonies for The National D-Day Museum, was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Public Service by Defense Secretary William Cohen.
Ambrose’s collaboration with Mueller led to the establishment of the Eisenhower Center in 1985 at UNO to provide administrative support for Ambrose’s efforts to interview American and Allied soldiers, airmen and sailors who were involved with planning and executing the climactic D-Day landings, Operation Overlord, on June 6, 1944. Ambrose scoured the nation to collect accounts of the veterans, many of whom he took on tours he and Mueller organized—following in the footsteps of the invasion forces from England to Normandy, through the Battle of the Bulge and on to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in the Bavarian Alps. Ambrose’s use of these eyewitness accounts and his intimate knowledge of the Eisenhower papers ultimately led to his bestsellers on the D-Day invasion and other WWII subjects in the 1990s.
Ambrose’s tours in Europe and his 600-plus personal interviews with veterans fueled his resolve to establish a national museum dedicated to the Allies’ heroic battles to defeat fascist regimes that had attacked America, especially the D-Day invasion of Nazi-held Normandy. He had long tried to persuade members of Congress that the federal government should build a museum exploring D-Day or all of World War II – to no avail. Impatient with inaction in Washington, Ambrose turned to his best friend Nick Mueller in 1990 to enlist his help in building a D-Day museum in the research park Mueller was developing for the university on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The museum would overlook the very location where boat-builder Andrew Higgins had tested his famous landing craft that proved essential to the amphibious assault on the Normandy beaches as well as many other landings on enemy-held beaches in Europe and in the Pacific.
Following years of research and hundreds of interviews, and after walking the beaches and battle sites of Europe with the veterans, Ambrose cemented a deep regard for America’s citizen soldiers, the workers on the Home Front, and the hardships endured to achieve victory. Ambrose told Mueller of his plan to build the museum in New Orleans: “We are here, you have free land on the lakefront where Higgins tested his boats, and New Orleans was home to Higgins Industries, producer of 12,000 of the landing craft and other boats critical to the Allied effort.” On that day in 1990, Ambrose recalled a story from his conversation with former President and Supreme Commander Eisenhower in the sixties when Ambrose was editing the political and military leader’s papers. It was then that Eisenhower astonished Ambrose with his comment that “Andrew Higgins was the man who won World War II for us, because we had no boats anywhere at the outset of the war that could land men over an open beach.”
With that inspiration, Ambrose and Mueller got started on the museum plan. Their dream was realized 10 years later when The National D-Day Museum opened on June 6, 2000 before crowds of over 200,000 on the streets of New Orleans. The event brought together Secretary of Defense Cohen, NATO defense ministers, Tom Brokaw, Tom Hanks, members of Congress and the Louisiana Legislature, the New Orleans mayor, and various other representatives of Allied powers from World War II. The ceremonies drew nonstop coverage from C-SPAN and other media outlets. It was an historical moment for WWII veterans and their families, for Louisiana and for the nation.
But the grand opening was just the beginning of a more ambitious vision that was to emerge following the celebrations. US Senators Ted Stephens of Alaska and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, two decorated WWII veterans, pressed Ambrose and Mueller from the day of the opening to expand the mission of the Museum to cover every facet of the American experience in World War II. If they and the Museum’s trustees agreed, the senators promised initial funding from Congress and national designation. Ambrose and Mueller forged ahead, and other major support came from US Senator Mary Landrieu, the state of Louisiana and from a vigorous Museum board chaired by shipbuilder Boysie Bollinger.
Although Stephen Ambrose passed away in October 2002, the quest of the two history professors gained momentum two years later when the Museum’s Master Plan for an expanded 300,000-square-foot complex was approved by the Board of Trustees, bearing an initial price tag of $225 million, and a Congressional act sanctioning “America’s National WWII Museum” became law. The act reflected the Museum’s expanded mission to explore the entire war and its legacies in America’s fight for freedom, democracy and human rights at home and abroad—in times of conflict and peace.
It was a new beginning, a new challenge. Steve Ambrose had passed the torch to his friend and to new supporters who resolved to build a monumental institution dedicated to telling the story of America’s role in the global war, employing a unique mix of personal accounts, immersive exhibits and visitor experiences. The vision and mission were clear. The funding was not. Success or failure of any great quest is indistinguishable at the outset. But the purposes envisioned by Stephen Ambrose remained a powerful motivator.