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World War II veterans' long-awaited salute is gone with the winds of Katrina

NEW ORLEANS—Irving "Chet" Noyes spent four months preparing for a last meeting here with his crew, the men of USS Landing Ship Tank 494, who were forever bonded during the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy.

But the 89-year-old's plans to reunite with his crew in September at the National D-Day Museum were washed away in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And now the crew has lost its captain.

Noyes, of Jefferson City, Tenn., died Sept. 7, just days after he learned that the museum canceled reunion tours through at least the end of the year due to the hurricane and looting.

Katherine Noyes said her husband had been exercising to prepare for his first visit to the D-Day museum.

"We had been working on it for four months, and on the day Katrina hit, he had a minor heart attack," Noyes said. "We do kind of, in the family, think it was too big of a hit to take."

In all, hundreds of veterans' reunions were canceled in September and October, the busiest months for the museum, said Emily Claassen, the facility's group sales manager.

Time is critical, as many veterans will not pass this way again to visit a collection that's based on a defining moment in their lives. Their faces smooth and determined in the museum's black-and-white war photos, many of the vets—the youngest are in their late 70s—are hobbled by age and infirmities.

Each day, about 1,100 World War II veterans die, said Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The cancellations also mean that veterans may miss the opportunity to add their war experiences to the museum's oral history archive, a vast recorded collection used by historians and authors to research the massive invasions in the Atlantic and Pacific.

At least one group of 10 to 150 veterans was set to tour the museum each day in September and October, Claassen said.

The veterans of LST 494, who planned to meet in September, are considering holding their reunion elsewhere, said Don Meier, 81, a Seven Lakes, N.C., resident who operated the ship's radar on D-Day.

They may make the trip to the New Orleans museum in the future, but their numbers dwindle each year.

"Their ages are such that it really is touch-and-go between reunions," said Mike Guarino, a Houston lawyer who helps organize the events with his father, Joe Guarino, who was a gunnery officer on LST 494.

With about 45 to 55 veterans left in the group and the health of many deteriorating, "there really are some serious questions (about) whether we will get back down there," Guarino said.

The museum, which opened in 2000 on Magazine Street, was spared major damage by the hurricane, but it sits in the heart of a tattered city struggling to regain workers and visitors.

A looted gift shop and a water-damaged Spitfire fighter plane must be repaired and conditions must improve in New Orleans before it reopens.

The museum sits in the area of the city where Andrew Higgins built tens of thousands of his Higgins Boats—the awkward landing craft used to assault the beaches and the vessels that Dwight Eisenhower said won the war.

Warplanes hang from the ceiling of the museum and glass cases hold the antiquated weapons used by more than 1 million Americans who fought on D-Day, the battle that loosed German control of Western Europe and became the turning point in the war.

The museum's most priceless possession—thousands of hours of oral histories—remains intact.

A team of historians, headed by oral history curator Seth Paridon, travels the country recording World War II accounts. That program won't be stopped by the museum closure, but the historians have lost a valuable resource in the veterans who visit.

The archive, founded by historian Stephen Ambrose, is a resource often used by documentary filmmakers, historians and authors.

Ambrose, who died in 2002, began recording the war stories on tape. Museum historians have switched to video, which picks up facial emotions.

"They literally saved the world," Paridon said of the veterans. "It is our duty to collect as many of their stories as we can."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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