National History Day’s Sacrifice for Freedom – An Incredible Student-Teacher Experience – Learning About D-Day

War History Online proudly presents this article by guest blogger and history teacher Thomas H. Leighty.

The National History Day’s Sacrifice for Freedom is an incredible opportunity for students and teachers in the United States.  It is also a program that strives to instill the lessons of The Greatest Generation on those of the next generation.

This program has been made possible by Albert Small. Mr. Small with his generous endowment has made it possible for teachers and students from around the country to experience an in-depth study of The Invasion of Normandy.  The application process is a rigorous one that includes essays, resumes, and letters of recommendation. Only 15 student-teacher teams from around the country are selected for this experience.

This study of the climactic battle of D-Day begins with the delivery of books and articles that the teachers and students are to read and comment on through a website.  Students and teachers are to respond to questions and each other over the course of several months.  Five different books and numerous articles are read in the months prior to our journey.  Our study of Normandy and World War II then shifts in June to the University of Maryland.  It is here that professors from universities around the country as well as veterans spend time with the group.  Topics such as the Home Front, Intelligence and the geopolitical origins of World War II are presented to give students and teachers the context with which to study the Normandy Invasion.  Class time is also devoted to the overall look at the battle itself such as the deception plan, airborne drops, and the actual invasion itself. The staff even brings in an expert on the recovery of remains of fallen servicemen.

The lessons do not end with classroom instruction.  The group is then spirited away to the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C. where experts on the memorial provide a tour and background as the memorial’s design and construction.  The group is also provided a detailed tour of Arlington National Cemetery focusing on the graves of World War II figures including George Marshall and Audie Murphy.  The tour of Arlington is not limited to just notable figures.  Lectures on Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers and his service in WWII, as well as the service of Joe Louis, were covered.  During the time that I participated in the program, our group had the amazing opportunity to hear from Norman Thomas a member of 101st Airborne who jumped into Normandy on the morning of June 6.  These lectures and field trips, however, are just an appetizer to a seven-course meal.

Upon our completion of classroom time, we embark on a five-day trip to France to visit and study the Normandy battlefield.  Mr. Small’s endowment not only covers the costs of the classroom and field trips in the U.S. but those in France; where the real study of the battle takes place.  Our group was taken to Utah and Omaha beaches where we heard lectures from local experts and were able to walk the beaches and fortification.   After many years of personal study of the invasion seeing the beaches first-hand and glimpsing the length of the beaches with the tide out was awe-inspiring.  The thought of traversing that under fire was an incredible experience.  An experience that I cannot thank Albert Small and National History Day enough for giving me a chance to have.  The group was taken to Point Du Hoc where again the group meandered among the craters and fortifications all the while contemplating how those Rangers were able to scale that cliff.

Our journey did not stop at the beaches. We were met by the former mayor of Saint Mere Eglise’s son who provided personal anecdotes’ of his father’s time as mayor during the invasion.  We saw the memorial to John Steele on the church steeple in the town square.  We had lunch in the hedgerows of Normandy, visited several museums in the area and toured numerous cemeteries of both German and Allied personnel.

One would think that this experience alone was enough to move and inspire any student and teacher pair.  But our experience was made even richer and more meaningful by being asked from the time we were selected to choose a soldier from our state who was killed during the Battle for Normandy and who was buried in the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.  Once we had made our selection were to research this person and their life.  This research would culminate in the students giving eulogies by the grave of the person we chose.

For months my student and I using the internet, email, Facebook, books, museums, newspapers, and any other sources we could find worked at trying to learn all we could about Cpl. William Verderamo of Wilmington, DE.  We were able to locate his niece and nephew and had the pleasure of meeting with them for an afternoon discussion about their uncle.  We were able to locate his obituary in a Wilmington newspaper and a picture of Cpl. Verderamo from the Delaware Archives.

Before leaving for France the group spent one day at the National Archives in Maryland where we were able to do some research on our fallen hero.  Based on unit locations, landing zones, and our research we were able to find, as close as we could, the general area where Verderamo was killed on June 6, 1944.  Cpl. Verderamo was a medic in the 1st Infantry Division and was killed attending to the wounded on the beach.  Exposing himself to enemy fire while treating the wounded by the water line when he was struck by German Machine gun fire and killed.  Cpl Verderamo was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions that day.  In one moving report from the Army to his wife, they inquired as to whether or not she wanted some personal effects of his sent to her.  They indicated, however, that the effects were blood stained.  We were unable to locate any of these items, and it is unknown if they were ever returned.

The students, on the last day in Normandy, went to the Normandy American Cemetery where each of the fifteen gave a eulogy next to the grave of their fallen hero.  I was never more moved as a teacher than to watch these teenagers give some of the most amazing speeches about men that they had never met.  It made me proud to be a teacher and proud to be an American.  Students were also to create a website to memorialize their fallen hero which can be found here.  A video of each of the eulogies can found here.

So the next time someone says kids today do not understand sacrifice, I can personally vouch for at least 15 who do understand sacrifice just a little more thanks to Albert Small and National History Day.

For more information about the program see here.

By Thomas H. Leighty, History Teacher