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July 28, 2015

Fallen WWII soldiers teach students about sacrifice


In the more than 70 years since allied soldiers stormed the beach at Normandy, firsthand accounts of the lives lost that day are slipping away.

For the past five years, National History Day’s Normandy Institute has brought 15 students and their teachers back to the site of the turning point in World War II in order to bring today’s students closer to understanding the sacrifice made by the soldiers who fell that day.

Each year, selected students choose a soldier who fell during the invasion of Normandy and research their lives to find out who they were, where the fought and how they died.

“We know about the really famous heroes, but the average guy that went out there and did what he had to do, they are just numbers,” said Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day.

The students are encouraged to find a soldier from their own community, who were often not much older than themselves when they died. They meet relatives and friends of their soldiers and collect letters, telegrams and official military documents.

Before arriving in Normandy, the students travel to Washington, D.C. to visit the National Archives to search for more details.

In France, the students then visit the grave of their respective soldiers, where they read eulogies based off of the information acquired over their months of research.

Getting to know the intimate details of another person’s life gives the students a new-found respect for the work of historians, as well as a feeling of familiarity with their soldier, as if they knew them in real life.

Warm up questions
  1. What was D-Day?
  2. How much do you know about the individual soldiers who fought and died in World War II?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why is it important to find ways for younger generations to connect with history?
  2. What other methods can you think of for getting students to relate to historical events?
  3. What can we do to better preserve history for future generations?
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