Normandy Scholars raise the Flag at the Normandy American Cemetery
“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.
Jenna Stone places American and French flags at the resting place of Horace Bennino
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.”
A wreath laid by the Normandy Scholars at the Normandy American Cemetery which reads, "In Remembrance National History Day"
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
“I feel that medics are truly heroes,” said Joseph Landoni of Sequim, Washington as he delivered a briefing on medics at The Museum of the Atlantic Wall – The Grand Bunker on Saturday. As he spoke to the mixed group of his peers, teachers and National History Day staff, a German bunker overlooking Sword Beach loomed behind him. Joseph has chosen to honor Terrence D. Cosgriff of Washington, who served as a medic in the 119th Anti-Aircraft Battalion
Joseph’s briefing was one of the first given by the Normandy Scholars on their trip to France. On Friday, June 22, the fifteen Normandy Scholars and their teachers landed in Paris. After a three-hour bus ride, they were in Normandy to investigate the campaigns in which their chosen soldiers took part.
A former German bunker that overlooks Joseph’s briefing
Joseph Landoni delivers a briefing on medics from a landing craft
Their first stop was Pegasus Bridge, the sight of the first Allied victory on D-Day. The students took note of the precision displayed by the glider pilots of the British 6th Airborne Division as three gliders landed within 100 meters of the bridge, a critical objective. The group then toured the Memorial Pegasus and walked across the Pegasus Bridge that spanned the Caen Canal in 1944. This bridge is now behind the Memorial as it was replaced by a nearly identical bridge in 1994. (more…)
Tuesday was the most intensive day so far for the 2012 National History Day Normandy Scholars. The National Archives held a research day for the group of fifteen students and their teachers. The students viewed documents related to the individual soldiers they have chosen to honor in the Normandy American Cemetery.
The National Archives pulled documents related to the initial waves of the invasion, the efforts to build supply networks throughout Normandy, the push to secure Cherbourg, and the break out. Students viewed military maps, textual documents, and photographs to gain insight into the training, planning, and conduct of the Battle of Normandy.
Two students found their soldiers’ names listed in the records of a temporary cemetery in Ste Mere Eglise. Ruben Tellez, being honored by Tiffany Shumack of San Diego, and John P. Ray, being honored by Kalie Indest of New Orleans, were temporarily interned at this cemetery before being transferred to the Normandy American Cemetery. The discovery of these names helped bring a closer bond between the soldier and the student.
Samantha Fletcher from Toledo, Ohio chose to honor a sailor. She will eulogize Joseph Vanasky, Jr. a motor machinist’s mate on the USS Osprey who was killed in action on June 5, 1944. At the Archives, Samantha found the deck logs from the ship and noticed the value of studying an original document.
Samantha discusses her experience in the video below:
The Normandy Scholars will return to George Washington University on Wednesday morning for presentations by scholars and a session on high school yearbooks during World War II.
This post by Louisiana History Day Coordinator Nathan Huegen.
Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom, The Albert H. Small Student/Teacher Institute is now underway. Fifteen teachers and fifteen students from across the country were selected in January to participate in this rigorous institute. After months of in-depth reading, all thirty participants have arrived on the campus of George Washington University to hear detailed lectures, tour monuments honoring the military, and research at the National Archives. On Thursday, June 21 they will all board a plane to Normandy to walk the beaches and visit the sites of some of the most famous battles.
Each student has selected a fallen soldier who lived in his or her state and is buried in the Normandy American Cemetery. The students are preparing eulogies to be read at the grave site of each soldier. In addition, the students will create a web site honoring their chosen soldier at the conclusion of the institute.
On the first night, all thirty participants were treated to a reception at the City View Room on the 7th floor of the Elliot School of International Affairs on the campus of George Washington University. The students showed their appreciation to Albert H. Small for his support of the Institute, and hear from Mortimer Caplin, who served as a beachmaster on D-Day +1. Mr. Caplin told of landing on Omaha Beach on the morning of June 7 and being tasked with directing the removal of debris, wrecked vehicles, and bodies from the area. He received a standing ovation after he finished, and was thanked many times for his service.
Sunday marked the beginning of the lectures and activities. Up first was US Marine Corps Major Richard Wilkerson with a presentation called World War II: The Big Picture. Following his lecture, all participants boarded a bus to tour the National Mall including the Lincoln Memorial, the DC War Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and the World War II Memorial.
The National WWII Museum is proud to work as a partner with National History Day. Nathan Huegen, the Museum’s History Day Coordinator has mentored five of the student/teacher groups over the past few months and will be assisting with their research during the next two weeks. More updates on this unique program will appear over the next two weeks.
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.