Hanks Does His Latest Bit for History

02/05/2004 AT 10:26 AM EST

Tom Hanks admitted feeling like "small potatoes" around all the Washington bigshots at Wednesday night's $1,000-a-plate National D-Day Museum's Salute to the Citizen Soldier, reports PEOPLE.

"There's big things going down in this room," the "Saving Private Ryan" star told PEOPLE, referring to fellow attendees Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge -- and LSU quarterback Matt Mauck.

Hanks, 47, presented the museum's American Spirit Medallions, honoring the 12 World War II vets currently serving in Congress as well as the sole Holocaust survivor.

Rumsfeld, on the other hand, seemed pretty impressed by the two-time Oscar winner. "He has contributed to the interest in World War II, and that's a good thing for the country," Rumsfeld told PEOPLE. "Certainly, I've enjoyed his films."

Wednesday's gala kicked off a fundraising campaign to triple the size of the National D-Day Museum. The museum is located in New Orleans, which had been home of its founder, the late historian Stephen Ambrose.

Hanks's link to Ambrose is that Hanks (donning his producer's cap with co-producer Steven Spielberg) won two Emmys for his 2001 HBO mini-series, "Band of Brothers," based on Ambrose's book of the same name. The star is also honorary chairman of the museum's new $150 million fundraising campaign.

"This is a very urgent mission. We are losing World War II veterans ever day at a tremendous rate," Hanks told the audience. "The museum has embarked on a remarkable expansion that will cover the entire scope of the American experience in World War II -- on the land, on the sea, and in the air. This really was the dream of Stephen Ambrose."

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