Jordan Brown is a 13-year-old World War II buff who embarked upon a campaign to ensure that the WWII vets who served on D-Day are memorialized. This blog follows his journey to Normandy, France to watch the unveiling of the Major Dick Winters monument that he helped raise money to fund.
History is not something that is simply brought out of the archives, dusted off, and displayed as the way things really were. The understanding of history is a painstaking undertaking, held together with the help of assumptions, hypotheses, and inferences. Teachers and students of history who push dutifully onward, unaware of all the backstage work, miss the essence of the discipline. They fail to recognize the opportunity to do the one thing we must: question and judge history critically. Most of all, they miss the chance to learn how enjoyable it can be to go out and do a bit of digging.
The Albert H. Small Student/Teacher Institute, “Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom,” granted my student, Samuel Spare, and me the chance to do some of that digging. I strive to be a courier of the past for my students in my capacity as an educator of American history. However, nothing could have prepared me for the journey I took.
The journey began where any good historian would start, gathering and collecting a base of working knowledge from which to proceed in further study. Through a series of autobiographical and historical readings and films, Sam and I were thoroughly immersed in the study of events leading up to and including the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. What heightened our journey was the ability to comment and reflect upon the daily chapter readings, gaining insights and perspective from the other 14 teacher/student teams. Email, the Internet and other social media made collaboration and discussion possible. Many times I found myself re-reading sections of text to grasp and understand what others had seen that I had overlooked.
Throughout this process, my student began to locate, to research and to write about a fallen soldier who took part in the Normandy campaign. The process was made even more intriguing as Sam was able to identify a soldier who graduated from our own high school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. One of the joys of this program was hearing the excitement in Sam’s voice every week as he found new documents, a photograph, or viable evidence pertaining to his soldier, William T. McCabe. As the weeks turned into months and June approached, Sam went on to scour microfilm, yearbooks, and even locate living relatives – the process of doing history was coming alive for him with every turn.
Once we arrived at the University of Maryland our vision and curiosity only increased as our time with the other teams began. We were treated to opportunities that most educators and students could only hope to encounter. From laying a wreath during a formal ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to a behind-the-scenes look at the National Archives, our eyes continued to be opened about the true historical process. But perhaps the most engaging moments of all were arriving in France and traveling through the countryside of Normandy.
Each one of the student-teacher teams can highlight and recall countless emotional experiences during our five-day journey. Two memories, however, are the most prominent for everyone – arriving on Utah and Omaha beaches and standing at our soldier’s gravesite above the cliffs of Omaha.
I cannot even begin to describe the emotional rollercoaster I felt as I stepped foot onto the two beaches. What I can remember is stopping at the beach’s edge, lowering my head, and feeling tears of emotion traveling down my cheek. There has never been another experience like it in my life. How could these brave young men have gone through with this? How could they have sacrificed everything? The questions kept flooding my mind as I stood there and scanned the beach. It all seemed surreal. Yet my emotional journey, and Mr. Small’s wish, came to fruition when upon exiting the beach I found a small etching in the sand made by one of our students. It was simply the word “Thanks” with a heart drawn around it - so very simple, yet so profound. There was the essence of our journey.That small gesture was only magnified as we climbed the cliffs and entered the American National Cemetery. For over four hours students and teachers alike stood motionless and silent as each student scholar paid tribute to their fallen soldier. One by one, each student knelt, placing an American and French flag at the base of the pale, white marble cross. Then a short tribute to their soldier was read aloud, culled from their tireless research.
What we heard were excerpts from letters home, comments by family members and friends, poems written by one of the students the night before and songs of remembrance and longing lofting above the graves. We heard the stories of brave young men that gave the greatest sacrifice, their lives, in order that the world would remain free from tyranny. That is the lesson I strive to instill upon my students. I experienced the highest honor any educator can feel, as my young student paid respect to a fellow American, even though years removed and never having met.
I remember leaving the cemetery that day thinking, “How can this moment and this legacy be brought back home?” The answer came one week after our return from France as I celebrated the Fourth of July. The holiday took on a whole new meaning; a meaning that continues to this day and translates into a great responsibility. We -- teachers, students, parents, and all citizens -- have a responsibility to remember those who gave their lives so that we might still be able to celebrate our freedom. To quote the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., “Freedom is not free.” This is the responsibility that must be exercised by continuing to keep the memory of World War II soldiers alive in the minds of our young people, just as Mr. Small envisioned from the start. Go forth and exercise this responsibility!
Here are some links to work by students to memorialize a fallen Pennsylvania soldier from the D-Day invasion:
William T. McCabe (Carlisle, PA) - Glider Pilot, 78th Squadron of the 435th Troop Carrier Group
Richard O'Malley (Kingston, PA) - Commander, 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Division
William T. Lemon (Loudon County, VA) - Technical Sergeant, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division
Robert D. Morrison (Carlisle, PA) - Private First Class, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division
Alex M. Lux (Philadelphia, PA) - 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment
James M. Nolan (Pittsburgh, PA) - Warrant Officer, 264th Infantry, 66th Division
Walter Danchak (Schuykill, PA) - 16th INfantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division
Alex Banko (Northampton, PA) - Private First Class, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division
Thomas N. Ward (Philadelphia, PA) - Private First Class, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division
Angelo Bufano (Scranton, PA) - 357th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division
David Tenenbaum (New York) - 358th Infantry Regiment 90th Division
Published in Hang Tough 6-6-44: A community blog