National World War II Museum president, CEO coming to Beaver Creek to discuss American history | VailDaily.com

National World War II Museum president, CEO coming to Beaver Creek to discuss American history

Free event Monday, Aug. 26, at the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch

The National World War II Museum is located in New Orleans. President and CEO Stephen Watson has been with the museum for about 17 of its 19 years, having opened in 2000.
Courtesy of the National World War II Museum

In downtown New Orleans, the National World War II Museum sits on three city blocks and is ranked by Trip Advisor as the No. 3 museum in the country and No. 8 museum in the world.

The museum, designated by Congress as the national World War II museum, tells the story of the American experience during the war that changed the world — including why it was fought, how it was won and what it means today. Opening in 2000 and costing nearly a half-billion dollars, the museum features Pacific and European exhibits, the new 230-room Higgins Hotel & Conference Center, educational outreach programs and more. The “Beyond All Boundaries” 4-D experience produced by Tom Hanks is also a big attraction at the museum.

“It was really a transformative time, not only in the United States but in the world,” said National World War II Museum President and CEO Stephen Watson. “It really propelled us into the sort of global superpower that we are today, and I think sometimes younger generations just think it was always that way. World War II was really one of those events that changed that.”

On Monday, Aug. 26, Watson will be at The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch for a free event, discussing the museum in New Orleans, its educational work with teachers and students across the country, and its outreach opportunities, such as its recent trip to Normandy, France, on June 6, the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Stephen Watson is president and CEO of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Collecting history

Research into World War II history is very rich and active, Watson said, but there is a sense of urgency. Of the 16 million men and women that served, about 450,000 are still alive.

“We are still actively collecting oral history and interviewing veterans,” Watson said.

In an average week, the museum receives about 100 inquiries from the public, either regarding artifacts they might have for a collection or about a loved one.

“One of the services that we provide to the public is also helping people understand what their loved one did,” Watson said.

Cherry Whitley, a Minturn resident and advocate for the museum who was on the 75th anniversary trip to Normandy, researched her father’s involvement in World War II herself.

The National World War II Museum took 900 people to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, as well as 27 World War II veterans. Minturn resident Cherry Whitley was there and said it was like “going back to the 1940s.” As part of the celebration, she was on one of the boats simulating the D-Day experience, along with nine World War II veterans.
Cherry Whitley | Special to the Daily

“I had to be like a private detective to figure out his life and where he had been,” she said. “Every time we brought it up, he’d refuse to talk about it.”

The museum has a program where it takes people — students, veterans, adults — to World War II battle sites, including the Battle of the Bulge. It also has two historians traveling the country, interviewing veterans.

“Just about every family has a connection to World War II,” Watson said.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans looks at all aspects of the war, from what happened in Europe and the Pacific to what was going on in the U.S., as well as what happened after the war ended.
Courtesy of the National World War II Museum

‘Everyone was involved’

In the late 1930s, the U.S. military was the 17th largest in the world, Watson said, behind Romania. In a few short years, it would become a global superpower.

“World War II was the event that really brought all that together,” Watson said.

More than 419,000 Americans lost their lives.

On the home front, businesses switched from making domestic goods to weapons and ammunition. Children, women, men — everyone was doing their part.

“It was really a time in our country’s history when everyone was involved,” Watson said. “It took all parts of the country to secure victory.”

Andrew Higgins, a New Orleans boat builder whose company built more than half the boats for the Navy during World War II, adapted technology used to haul timber in the shallow swamp waters of Louisiana for the transport boats used on D-Day.

“If you’ve ever seen the opening scene of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ you’ve probably seen the landing craft,” Watson said. “Over 20,000 of those landing craft were built in New Orleans during the war by Higgins Industries.”

As part of World War II, many businesses on the home front stopped making domestic goods and instead helped make products for the military. These boats, used to haul troops on D-Day, were designed from technology used to haul timber from the shallow swamps of Louisiana.
Courtesy of the National World War II Museum

Higgins is one of the reasons the National World War II Museum is in New Orleans, Watson said. The other reason is the museum’s founder, historian and biographer Dr. Stephen Ambrose, who was a longtime professor at University of New Orleans and started the museum 19 years ago with founding president and CEO Nick Mueller after 650 interviews of primarily D-Day veterans.

For being a “young museum,” as Watson calls it, the National World War II Museum holds a lot of timeless American history — and important.

“I’m privileged to be part of the work that we’re doing here every day,” Watson said.

If you go …

  • What: Presentation by Stephen Watson, president and CEO of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
  • Where: The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch.
  • When: Monday, Aug. 26, 5 p.m.
  • Cost: Free
  • More information: Buffalos and Wyld restaurants inside The Ritz-Carlton will be open for dinner reservations. Valet parking at The Ritz costs $10 and is free if dining after the event. Space is limited. Email Cherry Whitley at Cherrywhitley@comcast.net.

Assistant editor Ross Leonhart can be reached at 970-748-2984 and rleonhart@vaildaily.com. Follow him on Instagram at colorado_livin_on_the_hill.