When he left the U.S. Marine Corps after 27 years, 10 months and 10 days of service, retired Lt. Col. Donald Weill felt he had done his duty.
But unlike Gen. Douglas Mac-Arthur’s recollection of what happens to “old soldiers,” Weill’s troops are still with him.
They’re all over his house: some 5,000 of them, of every color, stripe, uniform, battle and war in history.
Weill is a maker and collector of military miniatures (don’t dare call them “toy soldiers” in his presence). And each battalion, each troop, each soldier holds a special spot in Weill’s heart.
But none so much as the field full of combatants silently flailing away at one another in a motionless Battle of New Orleans diorama.
The diorama is laid out to actual battle plans of American Gen. Andrew Jackson and the British Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, who died on the Chalmette battlefield at 36, seconds after uttering his last words to “… send forward the reserves!”
Weill stops by a door in his home in Metairie and looks in on the Americans and British from time to time. He is preparing to move the intricately laid out battlefield for viewing at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, 2701 State St., where the Bicentennial Mass of Thanksgiving for the American victory will be celebrated Thursday.
The last time Weill showed the layout of troops was 50 years ago for the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans when he displayed it at the University of New Orleans library, where it stayed for 18 months, the St. Bernard Parish Public Library and finally the U.S Marine Corps museum at the Port of Embarkations before making its way back to the Weill home.
“Fortunately, when it came home it was placed upstairs,” Weill says. “It escaped Katrina completely. In all, I lost 8,000 soldiers in Katrina. Some of them couldn’t be replaced because the people who did them are no longer with us … some real nice looking stuff — gone.”
While Weill waits for the movers to arrive to transport the Battle of New Orleans scene, he proudly gives a tour of the “world of soldiers” that seemingly fill every room in his home. He lets on as to how his wife, Betty has laid out the allowable battle grounds and which rooms are off limits.
Weill smiles. Betty Weill smiles back. A silent truce exists.
Here, the Battle of the Bulge in miniature. There, a Confederate battle flag waves as grey clad Rebels rush up a hill, guns blazing. There’s a Roman legion. And over there on that shelf: Greeks, Poles, Germans … literally thousands of combatants all tearing at one another silently and in memoriam.
Weill tells of how he used to buy lead weights from automobile tire shops, melt them and mold the hot silvery liquid into soldiers before meticulously hand painting them. “Some I did,” he says. “Some were made by other people. Real masterpieces.”
He holds up a figure of the 16th-century Turkish conqueror Suleimain the Magnificent, decked out in a garish hat and clothed in a rainbow of colors.
“This goes beyond a mere miniature,” Weill says. “This is art. This may be my favorite.”
Bookcases are lined with soldiers with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs miniatures sprinkled in seemingly for comic relief. And over there a pompous, strutting Benito Mussolini standing next to Herman Goering.
The good, the bad and the ugly, all standing side by side in silence, reminding every one of what they had won. What they had lost. What they had wrought.
Weill sips from a cup of coffee and tells of how, as a youngster, he fell in love with making soldiers, and how the industry turned to making rubber soldiers sold at Woolworth’s and Kresge when lead was needed to make bullets during time of war.
And he tells of the peaceful times in his life when he owned the miniature soldier shop Le Petit Soldier in the French Quarter. He also ran a furniture store in Uptown New Orleans on Magazine Street and owned Vision Plaza stores all over the city.
But he always seems to come back to his first love: his miniature military.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the Franco-Prussian War,” he says. “My great grandfather was in the French army around that time and it was one of the last ‘pretty wars’. After that everybody started wearing khaki and field grays. Actually, at the beginning of World War I, the French were still wearing red britches and the dark blue coat. But that was because some politician owned the factory that made the red britches. But they soon realized it was not a good idea to be running around in a war wearing red britches.”
Those are incidentals you never have to worry about when you make your own armies in miniature.