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Teachers and students retrace the lives of those who died at Normandy

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  • Editor’s Note:

    The full name of the National History Day program is Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute.


    Now: an effort to make history more meaningful by bring the classroom to where it happened.

    The NewsHour's April Brown traveled to Normandy, France, to see a program that uses a personal approach to highlight the sacrifices made during World War II. The report is part of our American Graduate series, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


    It has been more than 70-years since Broadway Valentine Sims, Eugene Mlot, and Francisco Blas died during the invasion of Normandy, the turning point in the allied campaign to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany in World War II.

    But their sacrifice and that of 13 other servicemen is being remembered and honored in graveside eulogies at the American cemetery perched above Omaha Beach in Northern France.


    Technician 5th Class Broadway Valentine Sims was born in 1916 in the remote town of Elizabethton, Tennessee.


    Eugene G. Mlot was an orderly worker, shipping clerk and electrician with four years of high school under his belt when he joined the Army Air Force in 1942.


    Francisco Blas embodied the characteristics of bravery, courage and unwavering loyalty as he faced segregation, uncertainty and even death itself.


    This is an important part of National History Day's Normandy Institute.

  • VANESSA TAYLOR, Normandy Institute Scholar:

    I will never sacrifice of Henry and Louie made for their country and the sacrifice they made for me.

  • CATHY GORN, Executive Director, National History Day:

    The program started because of a concern that today's young people don't really understand what sacrifice is all about, sacrifice and freedom and how those two fit together.


    As executive director of National History Day, Cathy Gorn has led 15 student-teacher teams on a journey through history each summer over the past five years. By following in the footsteps of those who served and died during the Normandy campaign, they learn about D-Day and World War II.


    We have asked them to look at someone from their own backyards, their own community, or at least their own state, and find out all they could about this individual who gave that ultimate sacrifice — many of these people were not much older than the kids that we bring here — and to honor them in way that gives them their history back.


    Before they even go to France, teachers and students selected for the institute spend months becoming historians. They contact living family members, collect pictures, love letters and official military documents, hoping to unlock any clues about their silent hero.


    We know about the generals. 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. So these kids are getting to know them.


    There is a stop in Washington, D.C., to learn more about the war beyond what can be taken from a textbook. At the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, the teams work with some of the nation's leading caretakers of World War II artifacts, hoping to uncover further details amid the Archives' four billion documents.

  • NORWOOD THOMAS JR., World War II Veteran:

    We had several planes that crashed with all men on board.


    But the human costs of war can perhaps best be told by those who were there; 92-year-old Norwood Thomas Jr. fought as part of famed 101st Airborne Division. He was among the first Allied troops to land in Normandy, parachuting into a field under cover of darkness.


    On the drop zone that I landed on, we were supposed to have three battalions of infantry. This would be approximately 2,000 men. I landed at 1:21 in the morning. Daybreak, we moved off that drop zone, we were able to garner 95 men.


    When they get to France, it's time to tell the stories of their servicemen, among them a pilot, a technician and two radiomen, twin brothers from Nebraska.

    Vanessa Taylor from Ainsworth, Nebraska, learned Henry and Louie Pieper died together when their ship struck a mine in the English Channel.


    Their parents had received a letter from the twins only two days before their deaths, stating: "Do not worry about us. We are together."

  • SPENCER VALENTI, Normandy Institute Scholar:

    So he probably landed like right there.


    Spencer Valenti and his teacher, Thomas Leighty of Wilmington, Delaware, studied the life of medic William Verderamo, who saw action in North Africa and Sicily before the Battle of Normandy.


    A lot of his family members say that he was a really outgoing sort of person, that he'd always say — when he registered for the Army, that he would always say that he's going out to save the world.


    Private Verderamo was killed on June 6, 1944 D-Day. Spencer uncovered a letter that was later sent by the Army Effects Bureau to soldier's wife of six months, Mary.

  • It reads:

  • MAN:

    "I regret to advise that included among your husband's effects are some photos which are damaged, apparently by bloodstains. I shall appreciate it if you will indicate whether you desire these articles forwarded with his property."

  • AUDREY CALOVICH, Normandy Institute Scholar:

    It makes it very real and vivid. And I do have a very vivid imagination. So, I'm able to put myself in stories. I'm able to imagine if this is where they ran up the beach, got shot down.


    At first, Audrey Calovich of Kansas City, Missouri, only knew Flight Officer Edmund Decker as a decorated pilot killed by German fire on June 8, 1944. She'd eventually find out much more.


    Ed possessed a joy of mischief and adventure, an eye for trouble, and a lover of life. He was dashing and handsome. Flight Officer Decker was idealistic, cocky and brave. He was a fighter pilot, a good one.


    Many of the details Audrey discovered came from Decker's family in Kansas city and an alumni group at his old high school. But she found few military documents that mentioned Decker, and that has given her a new empathy for historians.


    Being on this trip, you understand how important it is to preserve those documents for future researchers like us. APRIL BROWN: Audrey's history teacher, Lisa Lauck, will use lessons learned on this trip to change how she teaches.

  • LISA LAUCK, History Teacher:

    Looking at it in the past, how I have taught it, you think about the troop movements and the overall big picture. And you know people died, but you don't really, I don't know, connect to it emotionally.

    And that's something I really want to change for my students. So, I hope that they can take away that these are people like you and I that had families, had loved ones.


    While there is much emphasis on the personal stories here, historian Antonin Dehays is conveying another important goal of the institute, that the past can be seen in many ways.

  • ANTONIN DEHAYS, Historian:

    Our job is to mention all the aspects of an event, the glorious ones, but the darkest ones as well.


    Among them, the horrors of the Holocaust and the almost six million Jews who died. But at a visit to a German cemetery, Nicole Cordes of Indianapolis became aware of how families in that country were affected as well.

  • NICOLE CORDES, Normandy Institute Scholar:

    Someone had come recently and put a laminated picture of a soldier, and they put flowers around it. And they were fresh flowers. So, I think he was 19 when he died.


    Back at the American cemetery, the students say a final goodbye to the men they have grown to know.


    While Mack and I have never met, I feel that this experience has given me an opportunity to get to know a face beyond the statistics. A project that began as a way for me to share and teach history has now instead been a teacher to me.


    Eventually, time and the elements will take back this plot, but it is a beautiful thought to think that he will stay here and that the earth will always remember him and his sacrifice.


    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm April Brown in Normandy, France.


    The students and teachers are building Web sites to share what they learned about their silent heroes. You can find a link to them on our home page, PBS.org/NewsHour.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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