Nearly 75 years ago, 160,000 Allied troops helped bend the arc of history by landing in Normandy, the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. Today, new technology at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is giving visitors an idea of what D-Day was like.
“D-Day: Freedom From Above” opened Monday morning — less than a month before D-Day’s 75th anniversary — inaugurating the museum’s first computer pad-driven “augmented reality” exhibit.
The exhibit, located in the museum’s second building, focuses on the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division’s landing on French soil and the liberation of the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
The exhibit will take about 40 minutes to tour and costs $5 per tablet.
Rachel Hesprich brought her children and their cousins from Wisconsin to witness the exhibit’s opening. She feels the technology helps bring history to life.
“It’s just making everything more real for them,” Hesprich said. “We’re very much a family that believes in making everything hands-on. This is a real thing, and these were real people.”
The exhibit sheds light on a time when America “did anything and everything necessary to win” a global war, said Lt. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, director of staff at the Pentagon’s Air Force headquarters.
“Our nation owes them a debt of gratitude,” Van Ovost said to a museum crowd that included veterans.
Without what was then the Army Air Force, there would have been no D-Day, said Jeff Duford, a museum curator.
“These aren’t just words on a panel,” Duford said. “This is an engaging exhibit.”
Tim Grant, 58, of Dayton, said his dad fought in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. Grant wanted his 37-year-old son to better understand that fateful time.
“I wanted to keep it going,” Grant said. “I wanted him to see what his grandpa went through, and what this great generation did for us.”
Jim Martin, a longtime Sugarcreek Twp. resident in Greene County, was a D-Day paratrooper who landed in France hours ahead of the largest amphibious assault in history. Martin said he was grateful to have a played a role that day.
“We joined that unit because we were told we would be the tip of the spear,” Martin recalled in a recent interview. “We knew also – because we were told continually – that we were expendable shock troops. And we would be in the most dangerous places there were, wherever they had a problem.”
Then-Pfc. “Pee Wee” Martin — he earned his nickname by being the lightest soldier in his regiment — parachuted into Normandy after midnight June 6, 1944 with the 101st’s 506th parachute infantry regiment, 3rd battalion, Company G, making him one of the first Allied soldiers to step foot in France in the D-Day invasion.
His unit’s mission was to hold a pair of newly built bridges to prevent Germans from supporting troops on Utah Beach.
Today, Martin is a trim and hearty 98 years old. “I’m still certified to jump,” he declared.
Dan Cuvier, 66, of Englewood, is an Army veteran and a museum volunteer. He believes the new exhibit may give young people some idea of what D-Day means.
“Both of my parents were in World War II,” he said. “I’m a by-product of World War II. I think it’s a very important thing to let people know, especially the younger generation, what it took to defeat an enemy back in the ’40s, to keep America free.”
While Monday’s weather canceled a planned paratrooper jump on fields outside the museum, the day’s events still included showings of the movie “D-Day: Normandy 1944.” Further events are planned for the actual June 6 anniversary, including the laying of a wreath and a flyover of the C-47 plane.
“D-Day Freedom from Above” will be open through the end of the year.