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

Mary K. Talbot

Ernie Cassis was not born in Rhode Island, but he is proud of the Ocean State history he preserves as a board member of the Westerly Armory Restoration.

After moving to town at the age of 83, his agent suggested he join the Westerly Armory, and this WWII veteran has been actively preserving local and military artifacts ever since.

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

Cassis began life in a small New York town called Tuxedo Park.

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

His abilities manifested there early in his life.

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

Despite being 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 “burned oil like crazy,” recalls Cassis. “I overhauled the engine and it ran fine when I finished.”

His fate was determined.

Cassis recalls that about eight years later his platoon leader was able to tap into these mechanical skills again.

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

“Knobby,” as Cassis’ train driver was affectionately known, “asked me if I could read blueprints and I said ‘yes’ and built all the antennas for the communications system.”

This achievement brought Cassis a promotion from second class sailor to third class electrician in one fell swoop. It was “one of the happiest days of my life,” he recalls.

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

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

Cassis recalls that it was “a huge task”. It took three months to build the 7,000 foot runway to accommodate heavy bomber planes.

With no electrical work to be done on the project, Cassis was introduced to a D-7 Caterpillar tractor that could lift, crush, and level coral to pave the runway.

Cassis was in Okinawa when the war ended. It was shipped back to the States and landed in San Francisco, where “I was given a train ticket and told to report to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.” There he finished his job as a security guard “over a rusty ship, protected by my 30-caliber carbine”.

“America is my country,” says Cassis, and he took pride in serving in any capacity assigned to him.

After the war he returned to his beloved Tuxedo Park. On arrival, however, he was greeted without fanfare.

Says Cassis, “I went from the Spring Valley train station to my house on Union Avenue.”

He was “simply relieved to finally see my family again after three years of absence”.

Cassis soon immersed himself in the civil service. Over the years he worked as a “building inspector, trustee, deputy mayor and village head”. And I was also President of the Tuxedo Volunteer Ambulance Corps. “

“I also ran a business for 40 years. It was an imported car repair shop. ”He says his career started with a Volkswagen while I was working for Foreign Cars of Rockland, the largest VW dealer in New York State.

In the early 1960s, “I was in the Sports Car Club of America and was the chief technical inspector for the New York area, and I built and drove Formula Vs and with my driver, Joe Dodge, we held the New York State Championship,” and we went nationwide Third. “

Cassis was married during this time and his wife became terminally ill. Before she died: “She called me by her bed,” he remembers. She asked Cassis to make him a promise and he said his head was starting to turn, wondering what she was going to ask of him. Appropriately, 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 kids were in the Boston area and she wanted to be closer to them and I couldn’t say no, so I left my lovely home in Tuxedo Park, which I helped design and build, and we moved to Westerly. “

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

Not only is Cassis a strategic advisor to 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 popular bartender at armory events, he has also taken on the role of chief restoration officer.

“There’s really nothing he wouldn’t do,” says CEO Humble.

“There’s a huge cannon in the front yard, it’s a parrot rifle, and when I started, I had it sandblasted and then painted,” explains Cassis.

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

Cassis restored wooden tables, doors, a transom, cupboards and filing drawers.

“Some things are very unusual, so it’s fun,” says Cassis. “When I went to the armory, I found that thing down in the basement in a pile of rubble,” he says, referring to a remote-controlled aerial target.

“It was used to drag the target so the flak people could shoot them.”

It was a tedious process that took almost six months, but Cassis “put it all back together” and now it’s on display along with Cassis’ own WWII naval uniform.

Cassis devotes his days to restoring the armory because he believes in the organization’s mission.

“It’s history about the city. It’s story about the people who lived in the city and sacrificed their time for church services, and we’re doing our best to keep that story alive. “

When asked why he was still so dedicated to preserving history at the age of 96, Cassis said: “America is probably the most beautiful thing that has happened in the world – at least in my opinion.”

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

Do you know a living veteran willing to share their story? Do you offer a program or service that focuses on serving the retired military? Are you planning for veterans or their families? Email information to Mary K. Talbot at TheseWhoServedAmerica@gmail.com

Event calendar

◘ Wednesday, American Legion Balfour-Cole Post 64 monthly meeting at 7 p.m., Prescott Avenue, Smithfield.

◘ Wednesday, Lunch & Learn with Citizens Bank and ESP, a one-hour virtual session to build an effective LinkedIn profile. Midday. Participate online or by phone. Further information and registration at ringlunchlearn.splashthat.com.

◘ Friday, National Military Virtual Careers Fair, sponsored by Veterans Education & Transition Services. The event will take place online from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Registration deadline Wednesday. To participate, contact Jon M. Skipper, jon@vets2techs.com, (484) 269-1187.

◘ Saturday, Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association’s 14th Annual Fundraiser, 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., VFW Post # 237, 850 Hope St., Bristol. Tickets $ 15, $ 7 for children ages 5-12. Available by phone from Gary Rehak, (401) 829-3004 or by email at sfcgadget@aol.com. All proceeds go to RI Chapter 9-1 to support veterans, troops, and community events.

Veteran participation wanted

September 11th, 20th Annual September 11th Sponsored by the Jaycees, 6 p.m., Jaycee Corridor & Arboretum, 110 Hay St., West Warwick on the grounds of Riverpoint Community Park. For more information, call Jack Lancellotta at (401) 828-9191.

Mary K. Talbot

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