Twenty years ago when the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion was being celebrated, a local historian observed Stephen Ambrose leading a group along Omaha Beach. Ambrose, then a star professor at the University of New Orleans, had made a name for himself as a chronicler of the war partially from having interviewed Dwight Eisenhower. It was Ambrose who claimed that Eisenhower had referred to New Orleanian Andrew Higgens, the ship builder who perfected the landing boats used at Normandy, as the person who won the war for the Allies. Mr. Boeing or the ship builders in Philadelphia might have taken exception, but the point was made: New Orleans played a major role in the greatest amphibious landing of all time.
Ambrose reportedly embraced the moment. “He was Eisenhower that day,” the historian recalled – the central figure of an invasion of people now carrying cameras rather than rifles.
Twenty years later and Ambrose’s legacy is still felt. In New Orleans the museum he proposed to honor D-Day has been expanded to embrace the entire war. His influence is also felt throughout Normandy. At historic markers, in tour busses and even at gift shops there are frequently excerpts from Band of Bothers, Ambrose’s opus about a group from the Army’s 101 Airborne Division and its rugged journey from Normandy through the war’s end. In terms of public perception, it’s the most important book of the time.
What happened 70 years ago this month was one of America’s finest moments, made more incredible that at the same time battles were being fought in the Pacific, and days before Rome had finally been liberated by Allied forces. Douglas Brinkley, the historian who observed Ambrose at Omaha Beach, would also contribute to the literature, writing a book about Pointe Du Hoc, the Normandy cliff that Army Rangers, at great sacrifice, scaled that day.
D-Day anniversaries will always remind us that we should be proud as a nation. We in New Orleans can also be proud, not just for the Higgins boats, but also for having become the epicenter of research for the war. History is shaped by both generals and historians.