Thomas Blakey, who parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day and later became a fixture at the National World War II Museum, died Thursday at his New Orleans home. He was 94.
A native of Nacogdoches, Texas, Blakey was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II.
“He and some of his buddies enlisted at the same time,” said his daughter, Missi Blakey.
Early on June 6, 1944, or D-Day, Blakey was airdropped into a church cemetery. From there, he made his way to a bridge just west of the town of Ste. Mere Eglise.
“We were ordered to take that bridge, to hold it whatever the cost was,” Blakey said in a 2013 interview with CBS News. “We did not let it go; the cost was high.”
For Blakey, there was a high personal cost as well. He described to CBS how he gunned down a German soldier who was part of a group of attackers trying to retake the bridge.
“I could see when the bullet hit him,” he said. The German jumped up the air, dropped his rifle and fell backwards.
Though the enemy soldier was dead, “He came to me, from that day on, every so often,” Blakey said. “He came vividly in my mind.”
The memory, he said, made him “belligerent” in years to come.
But a few months after he began volunteering at the museum, which opened in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum, the German stopped haunting him, Blakey told CBS.
Blakey also took part in Operation Market Garden in Holland and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was an aide to Lt. Gen. Lewis Brereton, of the 1st Allied Airborne Army. He remained an aide to Brereton in Paris after the war.
He made six trips to Normandy after the war, including a trip commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day last year. He was a recipient of the French Legion of Honor medal.
“We lost a great American, a hero of World War II and one who meant a great deal to the museum,” President and CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller said. “He was an iconic figure here and a dear friend.”
Blakey donated about 15,000 hours to the museum as a speaker and interpretive guide and was known around the museum as “the living artifact.”
He continued to volunteer at the museum until he was hospitalized in December, his daughter said.
After the war, Blakey moved to New Orleans and opened Blakey Log Service, which served the drilling industry. He sold the company in 1971, Missi Blakey said.
Blakey evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. The apartment complex he lived in on Robert E. Lee Boulevard was flooded after the London Avenue Canal levee was breached three blocks away.
He lived for a short time with his daughter in Savannah, Georgia, but eventually moved to an assisted living center in New Orleans.
“He missed New Orleans,” Missi Blakey said.
“My father was an interesting gentleman; he was very intelligent,” she said. “He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and provided us with a very good living.”
Besides his daughter, survivors include a stepdaughter, Josie Holladay; two stepsons, Scott Howard and Grover Howard; and a number of grandchildren, stepgrandchildren, great-grandchildren and stepgreat-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held 10 a.m. Monday at the museum, 945 Magazine St., with a reception to follow. Jacob Schoen and Son Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.