When I was asked to speak at the National World War II Museum this summer about my book “The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines,” I didn’t imagine that sitting in the front row would be twelve teenagers who already knew more about history than most adults learn in a lifetime.
These remarkable kids, all of whom were in 10th through 12th grade this past school year, had traveled from around the country to the sweltering heat of New Orleans, Louisiana, to participate in a unique opportunity designed to bring World War II history to life for students.
As members of the Normandy Academy, a pilot program created by the National World War II Museum and National History Day, each of the students—six boys and six girls—had spent the past few months studying the war and learning about a soldier from the same state who was killed on D-day.
They were now gathered at the museum in preparation for a trip to France to see the beaches where 150,000 Allied troops landed on June 6, 1944.
During this visit to New Orleans, they scoured the museum’s archives for further information on their fallen soldiers and spoke with World War II veterans.
They also saw some of the remarkable items from the museum’s collection, ranging from the boots of a German soldier to a Sherman tank, and talked with me about bringing history to life through research and storytelling.
During one of our meetings, I asked the students what had inspired them to join the program and to travel to France with a group of strangers. Many of them had never been overseas before and were looking forward to the experience, but the group’s overwhelming motivation was to learn as much as they could about the war.
These teenagers, for the most part, were history buffs who knew exactly where their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had served and their ranks.
Susanna Sigler, an 18-year-old from Northborough, Massachusetts, spoke of several members of her family involved in the war, including a grandmother who was a member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).
Clyde Hurst, a 17–year-old from Arlington, Virginia, who plans to join the military, said he thought he’d learn more about the war from seeing the places firsthand rather than just reading about them, and added, “The stories of these men deserve to be told.”
Seventeen-year-old Andrew Beam, also from Arlington, Virginia, who grew up visiting Civil War sites, longed to see a World War II battlefield and to learn more about D-Day, one of his favorite historical subjects.
As we talked, I realized the students’ research had already changed D-Day from a history lesson into a series of vivid stories of individuals who gave their lives for their country.
London Westley, a 16-year-old from Chicago, Illinois, and one of two Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) members in the program, said that he had started to view these men “not as soldiers but as real men with personal lives. These were real people who changed the course of human history.”
That sense of transformation was underscored for me a few weeks later when I read one of the eulogies offered by the students for their soldiers at the Normandy American Cemetery.
“I do not know if Jordan R. Krummes was hit by a German bullet, or if he drowned in the unforgiving waters, but I do know that he proudly gave his life for his country,” wrote 17-year-old Natalie McDonald from San Pedro, California. “His sacrifice brought us all here today, and it is what has allowed us to stand where we are standing.”
I congratulate the Normandy Academy for offering this life-changing opportunity to students who will undoubtedly help keep the memory of these men alive—a sacred responsibility of all Americans.
As Sigler beautifully stated when she returned from the trip, “We must let others know of the sacrifices of these individuals, and to pass on the duty of memory to our children.”
Cate Lineberry is author of "The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines." She has been a staff writer and Europe editor for National Geographic magazine and Web editor for Smithsonian magazine.