A BOYHOOD DREAM COME TRUE

Montecito resident John Blankenship has been collecting World War II memorabilia since he was a boy. Currently, his gigantic collection is contained in a special room in his home, but he wants to house it in a museum open to the public. His goal, he says, is for future generations to have access to the material and become knowledgeable about this war that changed our world. In this way, he says he hopes that he can help end wars that are global in nature. During a recent conversation, Blankenship discussed his collection and its rightful place behind glass.

Q. When did your dream begin?

A. Because I was born in 1942, I was much too young to appreciate the events of 1945 that brought WWII to an end. By the time I was nine years old, I began to be interested in what PX Kelly called, “The most monumental event in the history of mankind.”

While still in grade school, I read my father’s books on WWII and began to purchase pocket books with my allowance. My most memorable childhood birthday present was three volumes of Samuel Elliot Morrison’s “History of Naval Operations in WWII.” I began building models of WWII ships and planes when kits made of plastic became available in the fifties.

In 1965 while a senior at UCSB, I won the Edwin Coral Book Contest for my collection of WWII books. I used the one hundred-fifty-dollar prize to purchase more books on the subject.

I spent the five years between 1965 and 1970 as a Navy Pilot. I was not a supporter of the Vietnam War and really didn’t like the military. I did love flying, though, and thought I wanted to be an airline pilot, so I chose to fly P-3s because they were the biggest plane the Navy had at the time.

Now, over fifty years later, I have my own WWII museum with a library that numbers at least eighteen hundred volumes. Along with scale models, I have also collected flags, helmets, uniforms, medals and photographs. Those who participated on both sides are represented, from generals to Auschwitz prisoners, from the Tuskegee airmen to the French underground. The amount of information and artifacts is gigantic and growing every day.

What was it about WWII, in particular, that intrigued you?

WWII changed the world forever. Because the weapons developed were devastating, this new kind of warfare had the potential to end mankind. Over fifty-six million people perished in WWII, with an unknown number of maimed and wounded.

A positive aspect of the war was the GI Bill. Because of it, millions of doctors, lawyers, scientists and teachers got an education. We put a man on the moon twenty-four years later; that would have never happened without the GI Bill.

Instead of the negative results that the Treaty of Versailles created in the aftermath of WWI, General George C. Marshall came up with a way to dispel the hatred created by WWII. The Marshall Plan created one hundred thirty democracies and made present day Europe possible by pouring money into supplying equipment and promoting technical knowledge while rebuilding the countries decimated by the war.

Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “The Greatest Generation.” In the course of writing his book, he did extensive interviews with people who lived through WWII. He felt their accomplishments were legendary. These men and women came out of the Depression and experienced great losses. They didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of WWI with foreign entanglements, but Pearl Harbor resulted in sixteen million people going into the military. The entire country rallied behind the war effort as never before or since.

Why is creating a public museum so important to you?

It is imperative that the history of WWII is not forgotten, because those who do not study history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. For this reason I believe it is important to honor veterans with a Military Ball each year. I have also reinstated the Veterans Day Parade that died out in the seventies.

People hear about the museum in my home and come from all over to see it. Many donate their own memorabilia. One of my biggest thrills is meeting these men and women and hearing their tales. I am in the process of scanning their photographs and recording their stories for posterity.

Major General Joseph Franklin was a speaker at the D-Day celebration my wife, Hazel, and I gave in 2003. He saw that we were invited to Washington DC in 2004 to meet with the Department of the Army. They offered to give me a platoon of Sherman Tanks. In 2005, the Department of the Navy offered a destroyer. Both the Army and Navy have warehouses full of equipment saved from the WWII and they are anxious to put them on display.

In 2004, Navy Commander William Stewart suggested that I research the possibility of using the Veterans Memorial Building on Cabrillo Boulevard as a place to put my WWII collection on permanent display so that the public could benefit from seeing it.

You are calling this future museum “the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Museum.” How did that name come about?

When Hazel and I remodeled our home in 2003, the main reason was to have a place where I could put my collection. By the time we had everything displayed, it became obvious that the thousand-square-foot space was not big enough. While searching for ways to solve this problem, I thought of Pierre Claeyssens. He believed in the importance of remembering the sacrifices made in WWII and had treated veterans to a military ball yearly since 1997. Pierre grew up in Belgium and never forgot his gratitude to the Americans and British who liberated his native country after WWI.

In 2003, when Hazel and I invited Pierre to a lunch meeting, Pierre bet his daughter that we would ask for money. Instead I asked permission to use his name on the future museum. A few months later Pierre attended the 59th Anniversary of D-Day that we gave at our home. He toured my collection at that time and was amazed at its extent. The following Monday he invited Hazel and me to his home for breakfast and told us that he believed in the importance of the museum and was going to write a million-dollar check to begin the fundraising for a building that could be open to the public.

This led us to form a non-profit organization. We now have an excellent board made up of people from all of the services, as well as a UCSB professor. Stefanie Davis, who helped found the Reagan Library, brings many years of political and non-profit experience to the museum. The Wood-Claeyssens Foundation has given a generous yearly stipend to the museum ever since 2004.

What is your long-range plan for the museum?

History is being lost as the members of “The Greatest Generation” die off. As Pierre Claeyssens said, “The worst thing that can happen is that veterans be forgotten.” Someone needs to tell the generations of Americans who have benefited about the sacrifices that were made. I want to record many more living histories from WWII veterans so they will not be lost. Education of future generations will be more effective if the stories of these people can be used to illustrate the realities of war. Children should be exposed to the museum in a way that the stories become real. We now have the technology to accomplish this.

Hazel and I attended the fortieth, fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries in Normandy and have traveled extensively throughout the world to visit war museums, most recently Valetta, Malta, with about a hundred others in between. I now have a good idea what types of displays and presentations are most effective.

We have a nice nest egg from Pierre, but the number of potential funders needed to realize my dream is dwindling. We need to preserve the history of “The Greatest Generation” to serve as an example for future generations of the importance of preserving our democracy. The Veterans Memorial Building will provide a great location and facility for the museum. My plans for refurbishing include seismic retrofitting, an elevator and display areas with numerous interactive features to showcase the personal stories of WWII veterans. With Hazel’s help, I am concentrating on a campaign to fund these essential improvements to the building.

Contact Information

If you’d like to know more about the Pierre Clayessens Veterans Museum or would like to send a donation, call 705-5766 or write to “Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Museum c/o Stefanie Davis,” at 822 East Canon Perdido Street, Santa Barbara, CA, 93101.