Can-do handyman devoted to preserving armory’s historical past

Mary K Talbot

Ernie Cassis wasn’t born in Rhode Island, but he’s proud of the Ocean State history that he is helping to preserve as a board member of the Westerly Armory Restoration.

After moving to town at age 83, his Realtor suggested that he get involved with the Westerly Armory, and this World War II veteran has been actively preserving local and military artifacts ever since.

Cassis has become an invaluable member of the board of Westerly Armory Restoration. According to President Roberta Mudge Humble, “We don’t know what we’d do without him.”

Cassis’ life started out in a little town in New York called Tuxedo Park.

It’s “about 30 miles due west of West Point,” says Cassis, and it’s a place he fondly remembers.

His aptitudes manifested themselves there early in his life.

“Mechanically, I’m gifted, but I would have rather been born a millionaire,” jokes Cassis.

Even though he was only 10 years old and the baby in the family, Cassis’s father invited him to look under the hood when the family’s 1929 Model A Roadster died.

The car “was burning oil like crazy,” Cassis remembers. “I overhauled the engine and it ran just fine when I got done.”

His destiny had been determined.

Cassis recalls that about eight years later his platoon leader tapped those mechanical skills again.

Cassis was a Seabee, a member of the 125th United States Construction Battalion. It was 1942 when he anchored in the port of Pearl Harbor and Company D was given the task to build a radio station in Wahiawa, where they would be stationed.

“Knobby,” as Cassis’ platoon leader was affectionately named, “asked me if I could read blueprints, and I said, ‘Yes,’ and I constructed all of the antennas for the communications system.”

That feat Cassis earned a promotion from seaman second class to electrician’s mate third class in one fell swoop. It was “one of the happiest days of my life,” he remembers.

After their assignment was completed, Company D went back to the harbor and boarded their ship. The company landed on Okinawa on the third day of the invasion.

They were tasked with improving the Yonabaru airstrip after it was captured from the Japanese.

Cassis recalls that it was “a huge task.” It took three months of construction on the 7,000-foot airstrip to make it able to accommodate heavy bomber aircraft.

Since there was no electrical work to be done on the project, Cassis was introduced to a D-7 Caterpillar Tractor which he used to lift coral, crush and level to fortify the airstrip.

Cassis was at Okinawa when the war ended. He was shipped back to the States and landed in San Francisco, where “I was handed a railroad ticket and told to report to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.” There he finished his service standing guard “over a rusty ship, protected by my 30-calibre carbine.”

“America is my country,” says Cassis, and he was proud to serve in whatever capacity to which he was assigned.

He returned to his beloved Tuxedo Park after the war. However, he was greeted with no fanfare upon his arrival.

Cassis says, “I walked from the railroad station in Spring Valley to my home on Union Avenue.”

He was ”simply relieved to finally see my family after three years being away.”

Cassis soon immersed himself in public service. Over the years, he held the positions of “building inspector, trustee, deputy mayor and village manager. And I was president of the Tuxedo Volunteer Ambulance Corps too.”

“I also ran a business for 40 years. It was imported car repair.” He says his career all “started out with a Volkswagen when I worked for Foreign Cars of Rockland, the largest VW dealership in New York State.”

In the early 1960s, “I was in the Sports Car Club of America and I was the chief technical inspector for the New York region, and I built and raced Formula Vs and with my driver, Joe Dodge, we held the New York state championship and we were third nationally.”

Cassis was married during this time and his wife became terminally ill. Before she died, “She called me over to her bedside,” he recalls. She asked Cassis to make him a promise and he said his head started spinning, wondering what she would ask of him. Fittingly she said, “I want you to restore my Jaguar.”

And he did.

After the death of his first wife, Cassis remarried. “My second wife’s children were in the Boston area and she wanted to be closer to them, and I couldn’t say no, so I left my beautiful home in Tuxedo Park that I had helped to design and build and we moved to Westerly. “

“It was in 2008, I believe,” says Cassis, when he was introduced to Westerly Armory Restoration Inc. “I gave the president my lifetime’s work and I become a member.”

Cassis isn’t just a strategic adviser at the Armory, however, he’s always been an active board member who isn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and help. In addition to being a favorite bartender at Armory events, he has claimed the role of chief restoration officer.

“There’s really nothing he won’t do,” says board president Humble.

“There’s a huge cannon, it’s a parrot rifle, on the front lawn, and when I first joined, I had that sandblasted and then I painted it,” explains Cassis.

He had a sign made for the building and he noticed that two flights of steps leading from the entrance to the basement “were falling apart, they were dangerous, really,” so he rebuilt them too.

Cassis has restored wooden tables, doors, a transom, cabinets and file drawers.

“Some stuff is very unusual, so it’s fun to do,” says Cassis. “When I went to the armory, I found this thing in a pile of rubble down in the cellar,” he says, referring to a radio-controlled aerial target.

“It was used to tow the target for the antiaircraft people to shoot at.”

It was a painstaking process that took him almost six months, but Cassis “put it all back together” and now it’s on display, along with Cassis’ own World War II Navy uniform.

Cassis dedicates his days to his restoration work at the armory because he believes in the organization’s mission.

“It’s history about the town. It’s history about the people who lived in the town and gave their time to the services, and we are doing our best to preserve that history.”

Asked why he remains so dedicated to preserving history at age 96, Cassis says, “America is probably the finest thing that happened to this world — at least it is in my estimation.”

To learn more about Westerly Armory Restoration Inc., to visit the armory, or to find out how to support the nonprofit organization, visit westerlyarmory.com.

Do you know a living veteran who would be willing to share their story? Do you offer a program or service focused on serving retired military? Are you planning for veterans or their families? Email information to Mary K. Talbot at ThoseWhoServedAmerica@gmail.com

Calendar of events

◘ Wednesday, monthly meeting of the Balfour-Cole Post 64 of the American Legion, 7 pm, Prescott Avenue, Smithfield.

◘ Wednesday, Lunch & Learn with Citizens Bank and ESP, a one-hour, virtual session on how to build an effective LinkedIn profile. noon Participate online or by phone. For more information and to register, visit ringlunchlearn.splashthat.com.

◘ Friday, National military virtual career fair for service members, sponsored by Veterans Education & Transition Services. Event will be held online from 11 am to 2 pm Registration closes Wednesday. To participate, contact Jon M Skipper, jon@vets2techs.com, (484) 269-1187.

◘ Saturday, Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association 14th annual macaroni and meatball dinner fundraiser, noon to 4 pm, VFW Post #237, 850 Hope St., Bristol. Tickets $15, $7 for children 5-12. Available by calling Gary Rehak, (401) 829-3004 or by email at sfcgadget@aol.com. All proceeds benefit RI Chapter 9-1 to support veterans, troops and community events.

Veteran participation sought

Sept. 11, 20th annual observance of 9/11, sponsored by the Jaycees, 6 pm, Jaycee Corridor & Arboretum, 110 Hay St., West Warwick at the site of the Riverpoint Community Park. For more information, call Jack Lancellotta at (401) 828-9191.

Mary K Talbot

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