SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The men and women who lived through World War II are dying out. More than 16 million Americans served in uniform during the war. But by next year, there will be less than a million living veterans from that war. And that makes the mission of the National World War II Museum, in New Orleans, all the more urgent. This weekend, the museum is opening a new wing, part of a $300 million expansion. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the museum hopes that its new, interactive exhibits will give visitors a better understanding of the ethical and emotional challenges people faced in the war.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: For many people, the stakes - and the scale - of World War II are very hard to fathom. It was a war fought around the world against powerful, determined regimes in Europe and the Pacific. Some 65 million people died.
GORDON MUELLER: A lot of people take it for granted that we would've won, but nobody was sure about that when the war started.
BLAIR: Gordon Nick Mueller is president of the National World War II Museum. He and his friend, the late historian Stephen Ambrose, founded the museum, which opened in 2000. This week, construction workers and the museum staff were still busy putting on the final touches to the new wing, which is called the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. And showing America's industrial might during the war, is one of its objectives. Mueller says it was a time when Americans knew the threats were real. He says civilians and corporations came together, to help.
MUELLER: Bill Knudsen, from General Motors; and Don Nelson, from Sears; and all these major companies helped FDR and the military understand what was needed to mass produce planes and tanks and jeeps on a scale never, ever done before.
BLAIR: Alongside the big machinery used in big battles, the museum also looks at how the war affected individuals. Flashing across huge screens are the words: What would you do? Short films present some of the moral dilemmas people faced during World War II.
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BLAIR: Historian and author Rick Atkinson is one of the consultants to the National World War II Museum.
RICK ATKINSON: The United States interned thousands of Japanese-Americans. They were rounded up and put into camps. It was a disgraceful episode in our history.
BLAIR: Atkinson says as the need for manpower intensified, special Japanese-American units were formed.
ATKINSON: If you were young Japanese-American; and your parents, and your family, had been rounded up and put in a camp in Idaho or California, or someplace, and the conditions were austere; and you were treated as an enemy alien; would you volunteer to serve your country by joining one of these units?
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BLAIR: Museum visitors will have to decide. They cast their votes, and later find out what really happened. In another scenario, you are a U.S. Army photographer at the liberation of the concentration camp Dachau.
ATKINSON: And when the camp was liberated in April 1945, of course, it was a horrible place.
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ATKINSON: The photographer was given the assignment to shoot the liberation, and what he photographed was murder.
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ATKINSON: If you are that photographer, do you then turn in the film that you have shot? Or do you - knowing that it will show American soldiers behaving badly, do you destroy the film?
BLAIR: Atkinson says these scenarios are grounded in history.
ATKINSON: And of course, a real moral dilemma, there's never a right choice. It's never easy. And that's the whole point.
BLAIR: The National World War II Museum also wants visitors to get a sense of the tension, and fear, that millions of American soldiers felt, including at the moment of an attack. So they've created what Nick Mueller calls a multisensory simulation experience.
MUELLER: So we're in the engine room of the USS Tang right now. And...
BLAIR: The museum has created a slightly larger replica of the submarine the USS Tang. In October of 1944, during a battle with Japanese ships, the submarine surfaced, and fired a torpedo that malfunctioned. The USS Tang sank after being hit by one of its own torpedoes. The museum has re-created its final mission. Inside the submarine, groups of visitors will re-enact the event. Each person will be given the name of an actual crew member from the USS Tang, and assigned a battle station.
MUELLER: When the torpedoes are fired, it'll be someone over there who will follow the order of the captain to fire the torpedo; press the button, and they go. And you'll see them being loaded. And then, of course, when that torpedo swings around and hits, this whole thing is going to jolt and is going to start sinking. And you're going to sense the water's coming in, and you're going to feel that blow and that you're going down.
BLAIR: When it's over, visitors will find out what happened to each crew member.
MUELLER: Captain O'Kane and the others were - a few others were thrown into the water, on the surface. And a number of others escaped from the bottom, using their Momsen lungs from 180 feet. Some died in the ascent. Nine survived, in total; were taken to Japanese prison camps and tortured for the next year or so.
BLAIR: By playing the role of an actual crew member, and by confronting the ethical issues that arose, Nick Mueller and historian Rick Atkinson hope World War II will be more palpable for visitors.
ATKINSON: For young people in particular, World War II is increasingly as remote as the Revolution or the Peloponnesian War. And this gives them an opportunity to understand it. It's very interactive. It's very vivid. Sometimes, it's very disturbing.
BLAIR: The new wing of the National World War II Museum, in New Orleans, opens this weekend. But they're not done expanding. Two more buildings are scheduled to open over the next few years. In one exhibit, visitors will be given a dog tag and follow the journey of an actual participant in the war.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.