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National World War II Museum volunteers confront war memories, find solace, every day

National World War II Museum

Thomas Blakey, the 94-year-old veteran who volunteered at the National World War II Museum for 15 years, passed away at his New Orleans home on Jan. 15.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is many things to many people. For the hundreds of school kids and other visitors who pass through, the museum is where they learn about an incomprehensible scene from world history. And for the World War II veterans who volunteer each day, the museum is where they confront war memories in a variety of different ways.

Thomas Blakey, a 94-year-old World War II veteran, volunteers at the museum every single day. Blakey began here 15 years ago, on the third floor, telling the crowds about Normandy. Now he sits at a table just inside the entrance — a living exhibit, telling stories and answering questions.

I wait for him to finish talking to a group of young people, who hang on his words: “Anything what you wanna do, you can do… you gotta want to… don’t forget it! Thank you for coming…”

Blakey looks at me skeptically when I sit down beside him for our interview, and I immediately validate skepticism by asking, "So, you used to be a paratrooper?"

“No I AM a paratrooper! Yes. I’m never NOT a paratrooper! Yes.”

After he tells me the tail of parachuting into a horrifying Nazi prison camp, Blakey scoffs when I ask him if being here ever churns up bad memories. “Oh no, it’s not stressful," he says. "It’s a good thing for me, because I feel like I am doing things for people. I’m giving them some information that they don’t have.”

Bill Cassidy, 90, and Johnny DiFatta, 89, each spend one afternoon a week standing in front of the museum’s Higgins boat — the type of small landing craft used to dump thousands of American soldiers upon European beaches.

Cassidy, a Navy veteran, also began volunteering at the museum 15 years ago. “It gave me a mission. My wife had passed away after I retired so I was at loose ends. It helped me get over that, you know… a bit.”

His first job was to help design and build the museum’s hulking Higgins boat. Higgins boats, once manufactured in New Orleans, were painted metallic grey, masking the fact that they were made from wood rather than metal.

Cassidy considers his World War II experience in the Mediterranean to have been relatively mellow, and so the museum holds only positive connotations for him. But he has seen some of the visitors react with mixed emotions: “We had a guy who came in and he was looking at the boat and we could see he was getting really agitated. We run over, we could see he had some years on him. So we ask him, ‘How you doin?’ And he says, ‘Okay, just, I was a soldier in Normandy on one of these boats… That damn thing is made outta wood! I coulda been killed!’ The paint throws em off…”

Johnny Difatta claims that volunteering at the museum represented the first time he ever talked about the war: “We totally wiped this war out. My brothers and my cousins thank God they all came back. And we’d all got out dancing, hunting, fishing, bowling, everything... and we never talked about the war. My brother was in Battle of the Bulge, coldest day in history. I’m in the Pacific, hot. But we didn’t talk about it. We got our life together, and we went on — until Steven Ambrose got this museum started."

Seventy-nine-year-old Anne Levy was four-and-a-half years old when Nazis locked her in the Warsaw ghetto. She now volunteers, telling her World War II stories at the museum once a week. “This is sort of a payback for me, coming here and meeting the people who really made it possible for us to survive. How could you not love coming here?”

But Levy admits to more conflicted recollections of World War II when she looks around the museum. “Some of it brings up a lot of memories with the different exhibits that they have, some are more painful than others. But no, this is all positive for me. I will tell you what I tell the kids: they’re my psychiatrists. I tell them, it gets it out of my system. I don’t have to go see a psychiatrist.”