Before the National WWII Museum even broke ground, American Legion Past National Commander William M. Detweiler was behind the scenes, standing strong for a vision that has grown into a national treasure.
Museum co-founders Stephen Ambrose and Nick Mueller called upon Detweiler in the 1990s to serve as a trustee of that vision. In those planning years and later, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Detweiler provided calm leadership, counsel and effectiveness. Today, the museum ranks third in the United States and eighth in the world, occupying four blocks of New Orleans, where it is the top-rated local attraction, with a brand-new hotel.
“There were a few people who hung in and believed,” National WWII Museum CEO and President Stephen Watson said Nov. 8 at the annual Victory Ball that Detweiler helped establish. “They understood the importance of the museum. Bill Detweiler was one of those leaders, one of those trustees in the 1990s, who knew how important it was to tell this story.”
Detweiler, who served as American Legion national commander in 1994 and 1995, passed away March 27, 2019. His memory was honored at the Veterans Day Weekend ball with words from the podium and a video that paid tribute to his work with The American Legion, the Southeast Louisiana VA Healthcare System and the museum.
“He was a great man – a good man – and a good friend,” Mueller said in the video. “He was a person who, once he made a commitment to you, he was loyal to that mission.”
“He was a role model for all of us, someone who really defines what service to our country means and defines what continuing to serve means,” Southeast Louisiana VA Healthcare System Director and CEO Fernando Rivera said.
Detweiler’s wife Maureen and other family members were recognized at the ball for their place in the museum’s development and in the past national commander’s career of service. Maureen Detweiler was one of two honorary chairmen for the Victory Ball.
“For the last 13 or 14 years, Bill was our consultant for military affairs,” Watson said. “If you came to a Memorial Day program, a Veterans Day program, an Armed Services Day program, a change of command, a retirement ceremony – anything that involved the veteran community and our military – Bill would be standing at this podium, and he would be the emcee. What you didn’t see was the work Bill put in behind the scenes to ensure that our museum not only gave proper tribute to our World War II veterans but all those that served, and all those still serving.”
Illustrating that spirit was the other Victory Ball honorary chairman, also a Legionnaire and Vietnam War veteran, Medal of Honor recipient James C. McCloughan of Michigan.
“Most of us Vietnam veterans are sons of a World War II veteran,” McCloughan told the sold-out crowd of more than 900. “My father was a World War II veteran. We both fought in our separate wars and came home. We both started careers. We both had a family, built a house and went on with our lives. In a lot of ways, we were similar. In some ways we were different. But I learned a lot from my dad. I learned hard work. I learned not to waste things. I also learned that you should save a little something for a rainy day. My dad also taught me you should put other people first.”
McCloughan said his father’s values guided him as a medic in the Vietnam War, particularly during the ambush May 13-15, 1969, for which he received the Medal of Honor on July 31, 2017. Bleeding heavily from shrapnel wounds, McCloughan refused evacuation. Outnumbered by about 2,000 to 89, the combat medic told his commanding officer, “You’re gonna need me.”
He was right. Over those days of heavy fire, the wounded specialist five is credited for saving 11 lives and fighting off multiple enemy attacks. “I could hear my dad saying, ‘Never do anything halfway. Do it to the best of your ability, and you do it until the job is done.’ I would rather be dead in a rice paddy than in a hospital being taken care of and find out that one of my men died in battle because I wasn’t there to do my job.”
Following the war, McCloughan began a 48-year career as an educator and coach, including more than 30 years as an American Legion Baseball coach. His commitment to young people was driven by his experience in the war, trying to save others who would not have the chance to come home and live out their lives. “They gave up the ultimate – they gave up their life,” McCloughan said. “Believe me, as a combat medic, I held 18-, 19- and 20-year-old boys in my arms. I heard their last words. And I saw them take their last breaths. And I can tell you the freedom we enjoy in this room tonight has been paid for, in full.”
McCloughan also told the crowd that places like the National WWII Museum ensure that those who made the ultimate sacrifice will “never die because we will speak of them for generations to come… A man never really dies until we no longer speak his name, until we no longer look at the deeds he accomplished for our freedom. That’s what this museum is all about. The World War II Museum is about looking at all of the memories that we have of the greatest generation, to follow their deeds and actions. These great warriors need to be preserved by this particular World War II Museum, so that we never forget them.”
Such was the message printed in the Victory Ball program, in reference to Detweiler: “Through Detweiler’s life’s work as an activist for veterans of all conflicts in both the local and national community, as well as through his essential advocacy for the growth of the National WWII Museum, his legacy will continue to live on.”