Sunday, May 8, 2016

Molly Visits the National WWII Museum and Makes D-Ration Chocolate Bars

Or: Gwen visited the National WWII Museum and Never Wanted to Leave!

Happy VE Day! Have I got a post for you.

Brace yourselves, guys. This is going to be a long one.

I have been impatiently trying to figure out a time to visit the National World War II Museum for a long time. Shocking, right? I figure by now all of you are familiar with my enthusiasm for this chapter in American (and world) history. I'm not really sure how I first found out about the museum, but I've been plotting and planning to make this trip happen for a while, and this past March, I got to make that dream come true! I spent two days there: one with my family, one by myself, and while I'm pretty sure I saw literally every thing there is to see in the museum, I wouldn't have complained if I spent the last day of our trip there as well.

Just like our past trips to places like the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, or John Adams' homes in Quincy, Massachusetts, I thought it would be fun to tell you all about the museum, and feature a recipe that had to do with out trip. I'm going to tell you right up front that this museum totally deserves its spot as one of the best museums in the world, and absolutely has to be a part of any trip to New Orleans you might be making in the future.

Why is it in New Orleans, you might wonder?

Because of this boat! You might recognize it from movies like Saving Private Ryan, any pictures or video footage you've seen of the D-Day landings, and basically any other movie or historical document that depicts amphibious landings during the war. Popularly called Higgins boats, these landing craft were built in New Orleans by Higgins Industries, run by Andrew Higgins. The Higgins boats featured a ramp exit in the front, which allowed for a faster escape from the ship for troops while under fire. Dwight Eisenhower credited Higgins as the "man who won the war", as the specialized design of the landing crafts helped save thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives.

Originally, the National WWII Museum was just the National D-Day Museum. Founded on June 6, 2000 by Stephen Ambrose (the guy who wrote Band of Brothers, Undaunted Courage, and several other best sellers), the museum was intended to specifically honor the legacy of the Normandy invasion because Ambrose realized in his research for books like D-Day and Citizen Soldiers that there was no museum specifically devoted to that part of our history. Because he lived in New Orleans and knew about Higgins' important contribution to the war, he decided it was the perfect place to found the museum. With the increased attention and enthusiasm for World War II and specifically D-Day history after Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, the museum has received significant backing from people like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

The interesting thing is that it was always the museum's intention to expand to discuss all aspects of the war, not just D-Day. If you have an older copy of Saving Private Ryan on DVD, you'll have an appeal from Steven Spielberg talking about the museum, and asking you to donate so the museum can expand into a comprehensive World War II museum. The museum was formally renamed in 2006, and has grown from one building to a huge campus, with plans to expand even further in the future.

The first place to visit is the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion. The lobby has several larger artifacts on display, including a replica Higgins boat (there aren't many intact Higgins boats left, but the replica is as authentic as you can get) and a C-47 Skytrain (the plane behind Molly in the first picture) hanging above. The C-47 dropped pathfinders from the 101st Airborne on D-Day, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne during Operation Market Garden, and resupplied the 101st Airborne during the siege of Bastogne. It was bought on eBay and donated to the museum!

After you get your ticket, you're encouraged to step onto a fake train and take part in the Dog Tag Experience. You're given a plastic "dog tag", and watch a short video telling you about how people from all over the country got on trains like this to travel to training grounds before shipping out overseas. You're randomly assigned a WWII personality, and then use your dog tag to follow them around the Campaigns of Courage exhibits!

... Or you can pick your own person right outside the train station. Part of me felt guilty for doing this, but I wanted to see who my options were! The touch screen kiosks outside let you browse by theater of operations or branch of service, and there was a really wide selection of people. Submariners, paratroopers, WASPs, nurses, combat photographers, war dog trainers, merchant marines and even civilians were available to choose from. I'd guess there's about 30 options total, with a pretty even breakdown of Europe vs. Pacific. They also did a good job of including familiar faces (John Basilone, Eugene Sledge, Ira Hayes, Mush Morton, James Gavin...) and people you'd probably never heard of before.

I, predictably, picked Eugene Sledge, a PFC with the 1st Marine Division and my favorite figure from the period. My dad picked James Ramage, a divebomber pilot on the USS Enterprise, and I helped my mom pick James Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne (she wanted a paratrooper, and for some reason there were no Band of Brothers personalities to pick) and my brother Felix Sparks, a captain with the 45th Infantry Division. I picked Sparks for my brother because the 45th helped liberate Dachau, which we visited last summer, and I've read Alex Kershaw's biography about him so I knew he was a pretty amazing guy. When I went back through the museum the next day, I picked John Basilone, Medal of Honor recipient for his actions on Guadalcanal, because again, I'm predictable.

Once you pick your person, you watch a short video about their life before the war and leading up to their early involvement in the conflict. You then head over to Campaigns of Courage exhibits, Road to Berlin or Road to Tokyo. Throughout the exhibits, there are kiosks where you can check in with your person and find out about what they were up to during that part of the war. Each person has five different videos, which include third person narration and either quotes from interviews or literature from the actual person, or quasi fictional first person tellings of events if they had passed away before the museum had been founded, or otherwise not left anything summarizing their personal thoughts about their experience before they passed.

I thought this was a really nice touch both because it kept people guessing about the fate of their person instead of immediately revealing that they'd been killed in the war, and also made the stories seem more human. It's one thing to have someone tell you about John Basilone, it's another to hear his experiences almost in his own voice.

Your final station was in the gift shop, and told you about your person's life after the war, or their legacy if they were killed in action. I thought this was a great way to end things, even if I'm a little uncertain how to feel about the kiosk recommending merchandise to purchase that has to do with your character. I'm torn between thinking it's a little tacky or it's a good idea, because it's smart to direct people to books or movies about their person if they want to learn more about them. After you went home, you can access all the information about your person and any "artifacts" you collected in the museum on the Dog Tag Experience's website if you link your card with your email address. If you use the same email over and over, it'll store all your profiles in one place, so you don't have to worry about keeping your card from trip to trip.

So, I loved basically everything about the museum, but the Dog Tag Experience was probably my absolute favorite part. A lot of museums have been doing stuff like this, but I've generally been less than impressed with how it's done. I got a trading card on a lanyard at the Old State House in Boston with very minimal information about a figure during the American Revolution that then encouraged me to go online and find out more about them. I feel like most people won't care enough to make that effort on their own, or will just forget about it by the time they get back to a computer, so you don't wind up learning much about them. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC gives people a booklet with a person's information in it, and you're instructed not to read the whole thing until you get to certain points in the museum. If you're like me and have no self control, you read the whole thing in one go, and some of the suspense and personal involvement is lost.

This was a great way of keeping people engaged without rushing through a story, or putting too much emphasis on doing homework outside of your trip. Both days I was at the museum, each kiosk was crowded with people wanting to check in with their character, and people seemed genuinely interested to find out more about them. Another thing I noticed from watching other guests was that people really seemed to have a wide selection of characters represented, so not everyone was just picking Eugene Sledge because they've seen The Pacific. I was so encouraged to see people so interested in this, and hope it remains a staple of the museum experience. I'd definitely like to collect more profiles when I go back!

The Campaigns of Courage exhibits were probably my second favorite part of the museum. We did Road to Berlin first because I decided to be nice and know most of my family tends to skew more towards the European Theater interest wise. My mom and brother's Dog Tags were linked to ETO people too, while my dad and I had Pacific people, so it was kind of fun to piggy back on what they learned instead of all four of us needing to wait turns to find out about our people.

Road to Berlin started off with an introduction to the major powers involved in the campaign, the major military figures, and a general background of how and why the US entered the war at this point. Remember, this is the National WWII Museum, so the focus is purely on the American war experience. The video therefore brings you right up to before Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, and the first major land contribution the US provided to the ETO.

The museum then becomes a quasi immersive exhibit, with dioramas and themeing that make you feel like you're really a part of the action, rather than just going through a sterile museum environment.

They did a good job of giving shout outs to as many people involved with the campaign as possible. The rooms focused on North Africa and Italy mostly talked about the ground war, but they had a special exhibit in the middle that looked like it was inside an authentic Quonset hut that was all about the air war. I thought this was a smarter idea than trying to weave the Army Air Force experience in with the Army's throughout the other two exhibits, because it kind of helped give both topics their own time to shine instead of one getting lost in the shuffle.

Aside from the kiosks where you could check in with your Dog Tag, they had a large table that let you find out more information about bombing raids over Europe.

The next room was all about D-Day, and featured shockingly few artifacts. You can watch a movie about the landings narrated by Tom Brokaw and there's a small case with artifacts, but that's it. I was totally surprised for a while that a museum originally called the D-Day Museum had so few D-Day artifacts. Where was all the stuff from when it was just the D-Day Museum?

We'll find that out in a bit.

Next came rooms about Market Garden, and the rest of the action leading up to the Battle of the Bulge. Unfortunately, none of my pictures from that part of the museum came out well enough to display, but it looked leafy and green, and has the distinction of having the only Band of Brothers person featured in the Road to Berlin exhibit. Babe Heffron is included in a video about Market Garden, and that's it. Honestly, I was a tiny bit baffled by this because of the popularity of both the series and the book, and by the fact that Sledge, Basilone, and Robert Leckie - the three main characters featured in The Pacific - were heavily referenced in Road to Tokyo, which also included oral histories from R.V. Burgin and Sid Phillips. As I do like The Pacific and learning about the PTO slightly more than Band of Brothers, I'm not complaining, but I did definitely assume it was going to be the other way around considering the close relationship Ambrose, Spielberg and Hanks had with many members of Easy Company, and the general popularity of the series.

My favorite room was the one about the Battle of the Bulge. They really did a nice job making you feel like you were in the middle of snowy Belgian woods!

The rest of the exhibits were focused on the push into Germany, and touched a bit on the devastation felt by the German cities after bombing raids. It didn't spend much time talking about the Holocaust outside of the interactive kiosks, but I've been promised that the Holocaust and the POW experience in both Europe and the Pacific is going to be focused on specifically in the next expansion of the museum, which will focus on liberation of the camps and the world directly after World War II.

We waited to do Road to Tokyo after lunch, which turned out to be something of a mistake. The museum got super crowded, and there were times where I felt like I had to literally fight my way through crowds to get glimpses of artifacts or read something. Both Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo are kind of narrow hallways at times, which makes them difficult to navigate on busy days, and with the increasing popularity of the museum and the tendency to crowd up on rainy days, be prepared to be patient or frustrated by other guests.

Because of this, most of my pictures are from the second day I was at the museum, and I didn't have Molly with me, so she's not in them. Alas.

Much like Road to Berlin, Road to Tokyo opens with a discussion about the leaders, military figures, and conditions that led to the US entering the conflict in the Pacific. Unlike Road to Berlin? This introduction takes place on the deck of the USS Enterprise. Pretty cool, right?

Most of the first several rooms focus on the naval war in the Pacific, and so the rooms are designed like you're still on the Enterprise. Once you get past Midway, though, you're in the jungles of the South Pacific. Or more specifically, Guadalcanal.

The machine gun right above is the same kind John Basilone would have used on Guadalcanal!

The Pacific War can be a tricky thing to tell the story of with limited space because it involved so many people doing so many different things thousands of miles away from each other. Because of that, Road to Tokyo did feel a little more scattered, or like there wasn't much time to focus on major conflicts as in depth as Road to Berlin did. Maybe that's not fair, because it's not like Anzio or the Hurtgen Forest had huge exhibits devoted to them, but generally speaking I think geography makes the Pacific a little more difficult to cram into ten relatively small rooms.

For example, Guadalcanal got its own room, but the next one focused on Island Hopping, and managed to cram in Saipan, Tarawa, Cape Gloucester, the China-Burma-India theater and more. It was a good overview of basically everything, but there just wasn't time or space to focus on anything too in depth.

My least favorite part was going into the next room and discovering that this was the only mention of Peleliu in the entire exhibit:

Peleliu is one of the bloodiest, most needless battles of the entire war, and still it's not very well known by the general public despite being the focus of three episodes of The Pacific. It's a topic I've done a lot of research about, so it's gotten to the point where it feels like the people involved are familiar buddies to me, and it always makes me sad to think of all the people who were hurt and killed there, and people today don't even know it happened or why.

On the plus side, the museum has found a really clever way of providing more equal representation and information about topics they didn't have space for in the exhibit proper. The kiosks where you check in with your Dog Tag also are an interactive database of digital artifacts, photos and oral histories from World War II veterans. If you're really interested in finding out more information about a specific battle or job, there's a good chance there'll be an oral history that meets your interest. There were two or three oral histories about Peleliu I was able to listen to, and the other histories were equally interesting and informative. The kiosks can get crowded on busy days, but if you're patient, they're very worth it. They're also all captioned, so you can watch and read while someone else plays with it if you want.

I really think this is a clever solution to the problem of someone marching in and going "My dad fought on Peleliu, why isn't there more stuff about it in here?", because the fact is that even a large museum can't possibly house artifacts and explanations of every single thing in excruciating detail when you're tackling a topic as wide as World War II. It's also great to give people a chance to hear the stories right from the people who were actually there!

The next rooms focused on the liberation of the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and then the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and finally, the end of the war.

Another feature they had scattered through both Campaigns of Courage exhibits were mini biographies of significant figures during the war. Most of them focused on people who were historically significant or otherwise interesting, but who aren't remembered as the biggest, baddest general or commander. A lot of museums and books won't stop talking about people like George Patton or Douglas MacArthur, but for the most part, these profiles focused on the people who were right in the thick of the action and were more your average soldier than five star general.

One of the other major attractions is the 4D movie Beyond All Boundaries, which provides a multi sensory look at the basic timeline of World War II. I went into it with fairly high expectations, and while I thought it was cool, I think this was my one thing where my expectations were a little too high. I'd definitely recommend seeing it, but I anticipated wanting to see it both days I would be at the museum, and it turned out I was satisfied with the one time.

Still, see it! It's narrated by Tom Hanks, has very cool visuals that make you feel like you're right in the thick of it, stars a pretty impressive celebrity voice cast, and Joe Mazzello, William Sadler and Adam Beach reprise their roles of Eugene Sledge, Chesty Puller and Ira Hayes from The Pacific and Flags of Our Fathers.

Our next stop was lunch!

The museum has two restaurants: the Soda Shop and the American Sector. The Soda Shop is pretty small, but themed like a mid century diner and opens earlier than the museum, so if you're lucky, you can grab breakfast or a snack there before the museum opens. The American Sector is a sit down restaurant that's located in the same building as the Solomon Victory Theater, where Beyond All Boundaries plays. It's open for lunch, happy hour, and dinner, although some of the dinner times are available after the museum closes.

The menu at the American Sector is a good mix of classic American favorites that feel a little 1940's without being totally authentic to the period and favorites from Cajun and Creole cuisine. I love when museum restaurants make an effort to match their menus to the theme of their exhibits! Honestly, I think you could make a successful restaurant featuring authentically 40's food. You'd just need to be smart about what made it on the menu.

My dad ordered the crab boil fritters for a starter, which were very good, and got the shrimp po-boy for lunch, which he wasn't as much of a fan of. My brother got an open faced pot roast sandwich, my mom got a turkey sandwich, and I got a burger. I really liked my burger - it had a really nice amount of cheese on it! - but my mom and brother were a little less enthusiastic about their food. I think they're just being a little picky. This was easily the best museum restaurant food I've had outside of Mitsitam Cafe. I also had a chance to try their Cobb salad and cheesecake the following day, and liked them, too.

Alas, I didn't get a chance to try their s'mores pie. Next time!

Outside the restaurant, they have a victory garden! Seasonal produce from the garden is used in both museum restaurants. How cool is that?

Our final stop on our first day was the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. This facility is home to the museum's bigger artifacts like their Sherman tank, B-17 and newly restored, newly installed P-51, painted to look like the planes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. Unfortunately, the Red Tail wasn't there while we were, but there are pictures on the museum's instagram if you want to see it!

There were a few other smaller exhibits as well, including a wall featuring the pictures of every Medal of Honor recipient from World War II. A touch screen database beneath the wall let you search by brand of service, theater of operation, home state and name to help you navigate the wall. The pictures of the Medal itself are for the recipients who no picture could be found.

It's also home to an interactive program called "What Would You Do?", where celebrities describe moral quandaries and tactical decisions during the war, and present you with two options: which would you pick? You select your answer, and listen to the outcome. A few of the segments were hosted by John Seda, aka John Basilone in The Pacific!

See what I mean by the weird favoritism towards The Pacific?

The Boeing Center is also home to the USS Tang Experience. The USS Tang was the most successful sub in World War II, and before entering the attraction, you're given a card with a historical member of the submarine's crew on it with a little information about them and their job on the sub. You then take your place at your station inside a replica of the submarine, and are told to listen for further instructions. There's a big video screen above you showing the above water action, and get to participate in the sub's final war patrol.

Not to spoil the ending, but it's the final mission because one of the torpedoes misfires and hits the Tang, sinking it and trapping most of the crew inside. The few survivors spent the rest of the war in POW camps in Japan. I thought the experience was really well designed in that it was interesting, kind of terrifying (the room literally fills with steam, you hear the warning klaxons going, and you watch the sub start to sink on the movie screen before everything goes black), and it was very respectful to the crew of the sub. I did think it was a little confusing finding out how to do your job, and think it could've been explained a little better, but that's really my only complaint.

After it's over, you go outside to see a memorial wall with photos all the members of the crew on it. Survivors pictures are backlit, and there's a video with an interview with one of the survivors to watch about the aftermath of the sinking. As soon as I went out, one of the other people who had participated pointed at the wall and said to his two kids in a super serious, 'I am so mad at my kids and so ready for this vacation to be over' voice "See? All those people are dead because you didn't do your jobs!" which to be honest, I thought was hilarious. That'll teach 'em for not paying attention!

So, at this point, I was really starting to wonder where all the D-Day stuff was. It seemed super weird to me that the only D-Day artifacts I'd seen was in the lobby and the small exhibit in Road to Berlin, and I honestly couldn't figure out where they were hiding.

The second day I was there - sans parents, brother and Molly, which you'll see why in a bit - I wandered around like an idiot looking for them after visiting the current temporary exhibit Fighting for the Right to Fight, about the African American experience during the war. The exhibit was interesting, but compared to the other parts of the museum, it felt very low tech and drab, which was disappointing. But after seeing it, I continued my hunt for the D-Day stuff, and finally kind of accidentally stumbled upon it.

It turns out that the D-Day exhibit and an exhibit about the home front experience during the war are still housed in the original building of the museum on the second and third floors. They're really not well signed, and were considerably less crowded than the rest of the museum, which was nice because you didn't feel like you were shoving your way through an angry crowd to get to see anything.

That said, the exhibits - much like Fighting for the Right to Fight - were a little... dated.

So right off the bat, I want to clarify that I don't hate this style of exhibit or didn't find it interesting or well laid out. The exhibits had really great artifacts and lots of good information, with little booths you could step inside and listen to oral histories, including some from Dick Winters. (Yes, I'm still keeping score with the HBO shows...) One of my favorite artifacts is the medic belt I included a picture of above: the Higgins boat this medic was on was sunk, along with all of his medical supplies, so when he hit the beach, he had to scavenge medical pouches off the dead and badly wounded, attaching them to his belt to be a kind of Batman-esque utility belt.

But compared to the rest of the museum, this definitely felt tired and a little outdated. I think if I'd seen it first, I wouldn't have minded it at all beyond thinking a couple things looked a little light bleached and could be freshened up, and then I would've been even more impressed by the more modern exhibits. As is, I was a little disappointed to realize that it's basically the exact same exhibit it was in 2000, and hasn't been updated or refreshed much since then. I'd still definitely recommend seeing it, but I think I would have liked to see it first before venturing into the rest of the museum. And who knows? Maybe after they finish building the Liberation pavilion, they'll freshen up the D-Day exhibits to be more on par with the rest of the museum!

The reason I went back for a second day's worth of touring - even though I probably would've gone back even if this hadn't happened honestly - was because my parents surprised me with a ticket to the museum's Behind the Lines tour for Christmas last year! It seriously was like my Red Ryder BB gun, I was so excited and so surprised to be gifted it.

Tours are held on Fridays, and take up most of the day. They limit it to eight people per tour, and the price includes museum admission, tickets to see Beyond All Boundaries and the USS Tang experience, as well as lunch with the curator. As part of the tour, you're taken up into the museum's archives with one of the curators and get to learn about and handle various pieces of the museum's collection that aren't currently on display. This was very cool, especially because the curator told us about what it's like to manage a collection of this size. For example, they have a policy where they can only accept four dress uniform jackets for any one divisional patch. These uniform jackets are generally ones people keep or pass on to children, or look to donate to museums, so they're a very popular piece to offer to a place like this, but they just can't take all of them. As someone who'd really like to work in a museum one day, it was really interesting to hear about that side of collection management.

Although I was a little disappointed that my tour seemed to cater very specifically to two tour members with an interest in the German war experience, we did get to look at some really cool artifacts including uniform jackets, customized combat knives, a full Japanese surgical kit, and weapons used by all major powers involved during the war.

I was especially excited to get to hold a M1 Garand, a M1 Carbine and a M1903 Springfield, as well as a corpsman's pouch from probably around the Guadalcanal campaign. I'm not a gun nut by any means (and for the record, while these firearms are in good condition and could be used, they're unloaded and inventories are taken often to make sure no one runs off with one), but it was still cool to get to actually hold weapons and gear I've read and written so much about. It really gives you a better understanding and appreciation for what the authentic experience was like.

The next big part of the tour was getting to climb inside the museum's Sherman tank. This is mainly why I didn't bring Molly with me. Climbing in and out while juggling her, my camera, my bag and myself would have been hard. The tank has been lovingly restored and cared for by one of the curators who led our tour and can actually be taken out and driven around. This part was honestly the only thing I wasn't that psyched about before actually getting to the museum and doing it. Had I been a man in the 1940's who could serve in the armed forces, my two absolute bottom choice jobs would be being a tanker or a submariner. I'm not sure sure why my brain has decided we'd have a better chance of surviving as an infantryman or on a bomber, but I think part of it is that when something happens to your tank or sub, you and all your friends are very, very likely to die a horrible death and there's not much you can do to save yourself. Comparatively, you can run faster on a beach or parachute out of a plane, so I'd rather take my chances there, I guess.

Still, I was interested to see if I could ignore my slight discomfort and do the thing, and I did! And let me tell you, I was not expecting it to be that much of an adrenaline rush. There's one thing about looking up at a tank and thinking, gee, you'd be really far off the ground if you were standing on top of it! And another to actually do it. I jumped in and got to wiggle myself around until I was sitting in the loader's seat, which had the hatch open so you could pop your head out. The pictures don't do it justice, but I promise, it's about ten times more cramped in there than any movie has ever made it look. I have no idea how I would've managed if I was a little taller and burlier.

Because I was flexible enough to make it work - and one of the other members of the tour kindly offered to hold my camera while I did it - I climbed out through the loader's seat and jumped off the tank. I really can't explain how cool it was! The whole thing only took about five or ten minutes (I probably could've stayed in longer, but didn't want to hold up the other members of the tour from getting their turn), but I was all shaky with adrenaline and was really impressed with myself that I did it, even though I never thought I'd like being inside a tank!

Afterward, we had lunch with the curator and a representative from the Education Department, and were given a private tour of the Boeing Center. I had a really nice time and would absolutely recommend doing the tour if you're really interested in the behind the scenes side of museums or want more information about artifacts.

The museum also invites local World War II veterans to come in and spend time at the museum to share their stories with visitors. I had the opportunity to chat with a man who laid down telephone wire in the Philippines during the liberation, and he told me about his brother, a Marine Raider who was shot by a sniper on his 21st birthday. He survived, but he struggled with awful headaches for the rest of his life. I really appreciated the chance to get to talk to him and am really glad the museum has such an open door policy to get people talking with people who were actually there.

They are also hosts to conferences, authors and other historians, and have one more attraction we didn't get to see: live shows at BB's Stage Door Canteen. They have a wide array of musicians and performers who come in and let you have a taste of the music and flair of the 1940's.

Needless to say, I had a really amazing time. I would love to go back, and would do just about anything to get a job there. If you're ever in the area, even if you're not that into World War II history, you need to stop by for at least an hour or two. You really won't regret it!

Whew, that was long. Sorry about that, guys! If you're still with me, I went back and forth a bit on what recipe I'd like to showcase here to go along with my already embarrassingly long post. Or, actually, I'm lying. I've been sitting on showing off this recipe for almost a year at this point, and considering the museum had a couple artifacts in their collection that go right along with this...

I knew now was the right time to whip out the D-Ration chocolate bar!

D-Ration chocolate bars aren't your average chocolate. You've probably heard stories of GIs giving Hershey bars to kids in the area they liberated, or trading their chocolate for souvenirs, food, or less savory things from other members of the local population because occupied Europe and parts of the Pacific hadn't seen chocolate in years, and American GIs were given bars in their rations. I always envisioned them handing out the typical thin, easily melty Hershey bars you use to make s'mores, until I saw Band of Brothers for the first time. In Replacements while they're in Holland, some of the troopers give a Dutch boy a chocolate bar, and it's thick, chunky, and wrapped in brown paper.

That's because although these bars were produced by the Hershey company, they're a completely different animal from the chocolate you're used to. The Army was looking for a way to give soldiers an emergency ration that was high in calories, lightweight, and that would be able to withstand high temperatures. Colonel Paul Logan approached Hershey in 1937 to start producing emergency chocolate bars meeting these specifications, but also requested that they only taste "a little better than a potato", figuring that if the bars tasted too good, soldiers would eat the bar before they were genuinely in an emergency situation. Three bars were supposed to give you enough calories to get through a day in an emergency situation, with each bar being worth 600 calories.

The jury is kind of out on whether or not people in the field genuinely liked to eat these. The bars were mixed with oat flour to make them more resistant to melting, which means the bars were super, super hard, and had a reputation of being tough enough to break your teeth, plus the texture was apparently grainier than regular chocolate. Some soldiers would shave parts off into hot water to make hot chocolate rather than eating them straight out of the wrapper. Other soldiers seemed to like them just fine, but apparently, there were enough complaints about needing a tastier bar that in 1943, Hershey was asked to make another bar that was more like a commercial chocolate bar, but still could withstand high temperatures. This became known as the Tropical Bar, and both the Tropical Bar and the D-Ration bar were mass produced throughout the war and distributed all over the world.

I generally don't like making candy because it can go so badly so quickly, but I've been very curious about what these bars actually tasted like. Since Hershey doesn't make them anymore, and any bars that are still in existence definitely shouldn't be eaten, I tried to find a recipe to make them at home. What I ended up stumbling upon was a kit to make them myself from, which seems to have gone out of business or relocated since I made the purchase.

It came with a booklet explaining the history of the D-Ration bar, along with the historical, modern, and super easy recipe to make them yourselves, complete with pictures and hints about tempering chocolate.

It also came with an authentic cardboard wrapper made to look just like the original wrapper. When the website was active, you were able to order these separately if you wanted to make more than one D-Ration bar. Because the website doesn't seem to exist anymore, I decided to save my wrapper instead of putting my bar in it, but it does fold up to cover it correctly.

And, of course, you need your mold. It's perfectly sized and reusable, but can't be put in the dishwasher because it'll warp.

Although the booklet includes the historical recipe, it's definitely not something you can make in your own kitchen, unless you have the equipment to make hundreds or thousands of chocolate bars. I used the modern recipe to make one bar, and it's only got four ingredients.

You melt down two ounces of unsweetened baker's chocolate, and then add 1 1/3 of an ounce of sugar, and 2/3 of an ounce of powdered milk. This all gets mixed together in a mixing bowl, and then 1/2 of a tablespoon of oat flour gets tossed in too. The mix gets really, really thick and almost dough like, which is normal. Hershey couldn't figure out how to automatically get the thick mixture squished into molds, so the dough was actually hand rolled and placed in the molds by workers.

If you tempered your chocolate correctly, it should pop right out of the mold after chilling for about an hour or two in the fridge. Mine isn't totally brown because I didn't have oat flour - I just chopped up 1/2 of a tablespoon of actual oats until they were almost as fine as flour.

So, again, I've never had a real D-Ration chocolate bar, and I'm pretty sure at this point, I'm never going to. I have no idea how this compares to the original taste wise, but I can promise you two things: this is definitely authentically grainy and hard as a rock. I did try to bite into this and instantly totally regretted it. Even chopping it up with a knife was really hard! It splintered like regular chocolate, but took a lot of muscle to split it. I cut off one square and split it in half to try softening it in my mouth, and that worked way better.

And honestly? I liked it! The texture was kind of weird, but hey, it was sweet, sugary chocolate. What's not to love about that? I could also definitely see where shaving this into a cup of hot water would make a decent cup of hot chocolate if I was huddled in a crummy foxhole in the middle of the rain or snow. I'm sure I was eating a version with better quality chocolate than the actual wartime Hershey bars, so that might be playing a part in my enthusiasm versus how I would have felt if this was 1944. My mom had a piece of it as well, and said she liked it too, even if the texture was a little weird. I'd definitely make them again, and am a little sad the company that used to make these kits seems to have gone out of business. It was a fun little experiment, and it went really well! My curiosity has finally been satisfied.

Thanks for sticking through with me to the end! Hopefully you enjoyed this look at one of the coolest museums in the world and learned something about the history of chocolate.

Hope you're having a happy VE Day!


  1. This sounds like an amazing museum that we will definitely check out one day! Thanks so much for blogging about your trip. Happy VE Day!

    1. You're very welcome! Hope you get to go soon. :D

  2. That sounds like an awesome museum. I skipped it when I was in New Orleans in December because I'd been underwhelmed by the WWI museum in Kansas City and figured they must be operating under the same philosophies, but I'm totally kicking myself now!

    1. Oh really? I'd heard good things about that museum, disappointing! But I'm pretty sure they're operated by totally different groups of people so I guess it makes sense they're managed differently, alas.

    2. I might be selling it a little short: the WWI museum is architecturally impressive - it's sunken into the ground and just walking up to the entrance is probably worth the visit.

      What irritated me the most was that the activities of commonwealth forces (and individuals) were all lumped into the British label. So on the wall of flying aces, Canadian Billy Bishop is listed under the British category, the actions of the Royal Indian Marines are presented as though they were no different from the Royal Navy, and so on.

      Still, they did have a solid collection of artifacts, and they've have a decent number of interactive exhibits (there's a surround-sound poetry booth that I thought was really impressive). It just seemed very "The Great War for Dummies" to me.

    3. Ah, I see, that makes sense! I'd still like to check it out, but I definitely get being frustrated with how the information's being conveyed.

      Quasi relatedly, one of my college professors said one of his favorite things to do is correct museums when they have the maple leaf flag for Canada on a D-Day map or something similar.

    4. Yeah, it's still worth visiting, so I hope I wasn't selling it too short. Plus there's are a couple of artillery pieces that aren't behind barriers that would be great for doll photos, so it would be perfect for one of your posts! ;)

    5. Sounds good to me! I've heard it's not too far from the Truman Presidential Library either, so I'd definitely like to head out there. Maybe after grad school!

  3. Yay, I'm so glad you had a great time! I was there a few years ago when my college band was on tour and we got to perform in the lobby right next to the Higgins boat! We only got to spend a few hours in the museum, though, so I would love to go back--seeing your pictures makes me really want to! Molly looks right at home. The behind the scenes tour sounds so cool, I really hope you get to work in a museum someday!

    1. I'm going to grad school in the fall to hopefully make that a reality, I'm really excited!! Also wow, that sounds like an awesome class field trip, we never got to go anywhere that exciting. Hopefully you can go back soon!