“We stand here among our fallen heroes: men who died in a strange land so we could continue to live how we want to live. They were young: students, farmers, electricians, neighbors, brothers, sons. They were soldiers, but they became something more. They became our heroes, our martyrs…martyrs of the greater good.”
These were the words of Ethan Webster, a high school student from Dallas, Texas, on the morning of June 26, 2012 as he honored Staff Sergeant John B. Guerrero of the 313th Infantry Regiment, 79th Division. Ethan’s original eulogy was read at the grave site of Sgt Guerrero in the Normandy American Cemetery as one of 16 eulogies delivered by the National History Day Normandy Scholars. Each of these scholars spent months researching World War II, and this experience in Normandy was their way of personally honoring one man who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Each scholar chose a soldier to be honored from his or her state. Some of the men were privates who stormed the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. Others arrived in the days and weeks after and gave their lives fighting in the bocage or in towns like Cherbourg or Sainte Mere Eglise. One was a sailor who died when the USS Osprey hit a mine while clearing a path for the ships that were to bring the men ashore on June 6.
Of the fifteen Normandy Scholars who conducted this extensive research, nine of them made contact with a living relative of their soldier. Jenna Stone of Enfield, Connecticut honored brothers Horace and Frank Bennino, who were killed in Normandy six weeks apart. Jenna found that Frank was killed six weeks after Horace and died without knowing the fate of his younger brother. Jenna met with surviving members of the Bennino family and chose to honor both men on Tuesday morning. She delivered two powerful eulogies that noted not only the slight differences between the brothers, but their common sense of the greater good.
Samantha Fletcher of Toledo, Ohio honored a sailor, Motor Machinist’s Mate Joseph Vanasky, Jr. Vanasky was killed aboard the USS Osprey, and his body was never recovered. At Vanasky’s place on the Wall of the Missing, Samantha delivered a tearful eulogy. “In his high school yearbook,” Samantha began, “Joseph Vanasky was described as three things: quiet, supportive, and curious…His niece Liz described him as softspoken, a little shy even.” She concluded, “family members keep his name alive with them and in their hearts and remembrance not just of what a great sailor he was, what a great man, too. Not only with they remember him…but I will too.”
Michael Shimek of Crawford, Nebraska honored not just the military sacrifice of his soldier, but an additional inspirational part of his soldier’s life as well. In his twenties, 2nd Lieutenant Dean A Woods fell in love with a woman of Japanese descent. Lt. Woods could not marry his love in Nebraska because of laws banning interracial marriage. Therefore, Lt. Woods and Thelma Kohiro were wed in Iowa during the spring of 1944 before he redeployed to Europe. The newlyweds were able to spend only two weeks together before Lt. Woods had to leave the country. While leading a small reconnaissance patrol, Lt. Woods was wounded and ultimately killed by a landmine. According to Michael, “Dean Woods was not willing to allow the law be the boundary of his love for Thelma. He is a fine example of rebellion that today we can look upon as heroic in the face of injustice.”
These are but a few of the stories that were delivered on Tuesday morning. Overall, sixteen eulogies were shared, countless tears were shed, and the meanings of sacrifice and freedom sunk in. Jason Lewis of Salem, Indiana summed it up for everyone in attendance while honoring Major Courtney B. Neilson. “Courtney and all the men and women buried around him are true American heroes. And for the sacrifices that these men and women made, I thank them.”
This post by Louisiana History Day Coordinator Nathan Huegen