A "living artifact" of WWII shares his story

(CBS News) Nearly 68 years have passed since the end of World War II, and first-hand accounts are becoming rare. Anna Werner shares the story of one man who is truly a part of our living history.

While taking a tour of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, you're advised to look up -- to a B-17 bomber, so deadly and effective it served in every theater of the war.

There's lots to see and hear in this museum of more than 10,000 artifacts and installations, all reflecting the simple fact that WWII was BIG -- the largest armed conflict in human history.

And with all the stuff, it would be easy to miss him, Sitting quietly, just to the right as you enter the exhibit hall.

But that would be a shame.

Mr. Tom Blakey was in the 82nd Airborne. On June 6, 1944, he jumped out of that big plane, around midnight, during the Normandy invasion.

He'll tell you all about his experiences

World War II veteran Tom Blakey, with Anna Werner, at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
CBS News

Staff Sgt. Blakey, 93 years old, volunteers at the museum for a couple of days each week, greeting visitors young and old, sharing his story, answering questions, and inevitably getting his picture taken.

"You want to break your camera?" he jests

He's been sitting there for over a decade now, logging 13,000 hours as a volunteer, so long the museum staff has a nickname for him: They call him the "living artifact." "They call me a lot of other things too. But you don't want to know about those!"

The museum is filled with reminders of his time as a paratrooper with the famed 82nd Airborne -- a photograph of Blakey even hangs in an exhibit.

Staff Sgt. Tom Blakey.
CBS News
He was there on the morning of D-Day, parachuting into France behind enemy lines. His mission: To capture and hold a small bridge over the Merderet River, making sure Nazi infantry and tanks could not reinforce the Normandy beaches.

"We were ordered to take that bridge and to hold it, whatever the cost was. We did not let it go," Blakey said. "The cost was high. But the bridge was held. And that kept the Germans from getting to Utah Beach."

It's a story he told many times over the years, but there was one part that he always left out, until now.

"We were at the bridge. They were comin' around the curve. Everybody had got the message, 'Pick one out.' I picked one out. I picked him out, got a site, hand on the trigger, and pulled it. I could see when the bullet hit him. He jumped up in the air, raised his arms above his head, and dropped his rifle and fell backwards."

He kept firing, and many Germans fell that day, and in battles to come. But even after the war ended and Blakey was sent back home to New Orleans, that first man he shot and killed haunted him.

"He came to me from that day on ever so often," Blakey said. "There was never any rhyme or reason when he came and when he left. Sometimes he would do that three or four times, sometimes he'd only do it once. But it was always somethin'. He was always there. And he came vividly in my mind often. It made me belligerent. I've got -- I was mad. I don't know what I was mad at or about. But I was mad.

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