Perhaps a dozen people who read our weekly article are going to love what follows. My apologies to the rest of you.
Anyone who knows me is well acquainted with my love for history. As a preacher, I actually own more books on history than theology. At Birmingham-Southern, most of a lifetime ago, I majored in American history and later in seminary, focused on church history. Thirty years ago, I decided to collect all the books on Harry Truman I could find (he was the first president I actually remembered from my childhood). After a decade during which I accumulated over eighty volumes, I gave that pursuit up as too expensive and unnecessary. I still own the books, however, and wonder sometimes what to do with them.
I’ve been to Civil War battlefields, and presidential homes and libraries all over the country. It all fascinates me. In particular these days, the Second World War has become my major historical interest.
For years, I resisted getting into the study of this defining event of the 20th century, probably because there is so much of it and where does one begin. Born in 1940, I recall only smidgens of the war, mainly uncles coming home in their uniforms and my siblings standing out in the yard when a plane would go over, calling to an uncle (“Hey, John L.”) who was undoubtedly riding that particular one. I don’t think my interest in the war could be called nostalgia since I have no actual memories of any significant aspect of it.
I once read a journal which a British lady had kept during the war and that may have hooked me more than anything else. When Stephen Ambrose started the wonderful D-Day Museum here in New Orleans, I became a charter member. I will not bore you with the books I have read or the old, out-of-date and out-of-print books I am now collecting. However, I am leading up to telling you something I find fascinating.
My office at the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans sits on land reclaimed from Lake Pontchartrain in the 1930s. Some 3,000 feet out into the lake, a stepped seawall was built, some five and a half miles long. Sand from the bottom of the lake was pumped outside the seawall to form a long strip of land. (Get your atlas down, look up Louisiana and find a map of New Orelans. The strip begins at Pontchartrain Boulevard on the west, reaches to the Lakefront Airport on the east, and is bounded by Robert E. Lee Boulevard on the south.)
Originally, the plan had been to build exclusive residential areas on the new land, but when the Second World War came, the federal government took over the 2,000 acres for military installations from one end to the other. Military hospitals, several bases, a German POW camp, a center to train Naval pilots, a factory to build PBY planes, and Camp Leroy Johnson all occupied this territory. Talk about being in the middle of history! This is the place. (Most of what I have learned on this comes from Mary Lou Widner’s book, “New Orleans in the Forties.” Today, the University of New Orleans sits smack in the middle of this land. Our office is across Elysian Fields Avenue from UNO.)
The other day I was having lunch with Ron, a pastor who has resigned his church to go to the Middle East where he works for a firm providing security for U.S. military bases. In 2004, Ron spent several months on leave from his church working in Pakistan and found more opportunities to minister in that short time than in years at his church. Now, he’s about to be recalled to another assignment in that part of the world. Toward the end of the meal, Ron said something about knowing the city where we are living.
I said, “Okay, let’s test your knowledge of this city.” I pointed toward the UNO Lakefront Arena and said, “What was located on that site during the Second World War?” He said, “A German POW camp.” I said, “How did you know that?” (Had he read Mrs. Widner’s book?) He said, “I was born in 1944 and grew up two miles from here. I know all about this area.”
He proved it. Over the next fascinating half-hour, Ron showed me remnants and evidence of the Second World War all around me.
When I pointed out the area where the Consolidated Vultee Corporation used to manufacture PBY Catalina planes, Ron said, “Here–I’ll show you the break in the seawall where they launched them over the lake. I used to come out here and watch them do it.” (This had gone on after the war’s end, in case you’re figuring dates here.) Sure enough, there is the cut in the wall, about the width of two lanes of traffic where something like a pier used to jut into the lake, from which the planes would take off.
“I’ll show you Camp Leroy Johnson,” he said. I said, “It doesn’t exist any more. How can you show it to me?” He said, “Come with me.” We were in my car, but he was the navigator. Just behind the UNO Lakefront Arena lies a massive open field, the size of several footfall fields laid side by side. The gate was open and we pulled into the area. To my surprise, the paved streets and avenues of Camp Leroy Johnson were still there. No buildings, no structures of any kind, just green grass and paved streets.
“What is the metal pavilion over there?” I asked, pointing to a rusting structure standing perhaps 50 feet tall at the edge of the field. Ron said, “That’s where the pope spoke when he came to New Orleans. It’s sacred to Catholics.” I pass that site every day and had often wondered what that little monstrosity meant.
Ron said, “Have you ever seen the lighthouse that stood at the old Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park?” I said, “There is still a lighthouse at the western end of Lakeshore Drive. But I don’t think there’s one around here.” I went on, “In fact, when they tore down the amusement park, they turned this area at the end of Elysian Fields into a research and development park. Nothing but steel and glass buildings.” Ron said, “Let’s go see.”
We drove into the R & D center and found a cove for the car. As we got out, I saw the lighthouse standing right in front of me. Perhaps 60 feet tall, it’s now showing its age and is surrounded by a rusting fence. Like a tramp camped out on a park bench in Silicon Valley, it was so out of place.
Ron said, “Now, Joe, bear in mind that this lighthouse used to be out in Lake Pontchartrain. When they filled in this area, in effect they moved it onto dry ground.” I said, “How old do you think it is?” “At least around 1900,” he said.
A guard came up to see what these two strangers were up to, heard this part of the conversation, and said, “Nope. It was built in Civil War days.” All the more impressive.
“Look at the doors, Ron,” I said. At the base of the lighthouse on each side stood two metal doors, heavy with rust. But each one was no more than four feet tall, as though put there for midgets.
The guard said, “You know why, don’t you. This lighthouse used to be on a base high above the water. When they pumped the sand in here, they buried the bottom half of it.”
Ron said some local societies have been trying to decide what to do about the lighthouse, how to preserve and memorialize it, but no one has done anything yet. Meanwhile, it sits there rusting away, looking something like Captain Ahab in the middle of Time Square.
Every morning I come to work by driving up Elysian Fields all the way to Lakeshore Drive. As I make the turn, I am face to face with the ancient lighthouse. Yet I had never seen it until today when my friend Ron introduced us.
I wonder what else I am missing in life because I refuse to see. And to whom can I be a “Ron” and open their eyes to the wonders around them.
“Lord, open the eyes of these men so they can see.” II Kings 6:20