New Orleans’ massive World War II museum is many things to many people. For the hundreds of schoolchildren who pass through every week, 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 ways.
Bill Cassidy, 90, and Johnny DiFatta, 89, each spend one afternoon each week telling war stories in front of the museum’s Higgins boat — the type of small landing craft used to dump hundreds of American soldiers on European beaches.
Difatta is grateful to have had a relatively peaceful tour, refueling planes on Treasury Island in the Pacific. He said that before he worked at the museum he never talked about the war, ever.
“After the war we wiped it out,” he said. “My brothers and my cousins, thank God, they all came back. We’d all go 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, while I was in the Pacific, hot, sweating. ... But we didn’t talk about it. We got our life together, and we went on, until Steven Ambrose got this museum started.”
Jimmy Fried, 95, has volunteered at the museum since 2001. “Yeah, it brings up pleasant memories,” said Fried, who during World War II remained stationed in America for 16 months before being shipped overseas to Europe in 1944 as a lieutenant. “Being here makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been, that’s the main thing. I can (talk about the war here) without it getting to me. I accepted what happened to me. I can do it because so many good things have happened to me.”
Thomas Blakey, a 94-year-old WWII veteran, was a regular volunteer at the museum until his passing last week. Blakey began 15 years ago on the third floor, telling the crowds about Normandy and his missions as a paratrooper. Almost daily, he sat at a table just inside the entrance — a living, interactive exhibit that drew hundreds of people for hundreds of conversations each day.
“I don’t have any bad memories about anything. That’s all worked out,” Blakey said in an interview prior to his death. “Being here is 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.”
Anne Levy, 79, was 4 years old when Nazis trapped her in the Warsaw ghetto. She now tells her World War II stories at the museum once a week.
“Some of it brings up a lot of memories and some are more painful than others,” she said of volunteering. “But this is all positive for me. The one thing that I can contribute, so that the next generation can learn, is to talk to them about my experiences. And I tell the kids they’re my psychiatrists,” Levy said with a laugh. “I tell them it gets it out of my system. I don’t have to go see a psychiatrist.”