LIMA — Ask anyone who lived through World War II the significance of June 6, 1944, and chances are there would be no hesitation in that person’s response.
That day, now commonly known as D-Day, was a watershed event in the history of the war, in which the largest naval armada ever assembled, over 5,000 ships, along with 13,000 aircraft, crossed the English Channel, delivering 160,000 Allied troops to the Normandy coast of France, then occupied by Nazi Germany.
After a fierce day-long battle on multiple fronts in which more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded, Nazi forces were pushed back and Allied forces had gained a foothold in occupied Europe. This began the Allied march into Europe that culminated in Victory in Europe, or V-E, Day on May 8, 1945, less than one year after soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy.
“World War II is one of the most important events in the history of mankind,” Bill Place, a social studies teacher at Bath High School, said. “There is no question it was the most important world event of the last century. That war changed the world and our country in so many ways that I find myself constantly referring back to it in class when talking about every decade thereafter.”
For years after the war, young people were taught the significance of D-Day from brothers, fathers or teachers who had first-hand experiences of that event. However, with today marking the 70th anniversary of that battle, many veterans of that conflict have since died, leaving today’s youth with few first-hand accounts of the events of that day.
“D-Day, as well as anything from 9/11 on back, is ancient history to most kids today,” Place said. “That is understandable. It certainly is not their reality. I try to help them understand that World War II is more than just a movie, that is was real and we were fighting for our very existence.”
For today’s educators, the challenge now is to prevent this historic day from becoming just another date in a history textbook while trying to cover many other historical events in their classes. Patrick Horstman, a social studies teacher at Lima Senior High School, uses writings from that era to give students that same first-hand perspective into this event.
“D-Day, like other events in history, gives students the opportunity to feel the event from the experiences of those that were a part of the event,” he said. “Through first hand reporting of writers like Ernie Pyle and the Veterans History Project students connect with the experiences of others, even those they may not have known.”
According to Horstman, this prevents events like D-Day from devolving into simple statistics.
“When students view events in this way, the data of the war — MIA, KIA, wounded ground taken, winners, losers, et cetera — gains real meaning,” he said.
Place also tries to bring his own personal experiences into his instruction on World War II. His father was one of Merrill’s Marauders, a group who fought the Japanese behind enemy lines in southeast Asia. That connection has helped him connect deeply with the events of this conflict, a bond he hopes to share with his students.
“I remember years ago going to the Allen County Airport with my dad to see the World War II planes they used to bring there,” he said. “He got to talking to another vet from World War II who was there. The other gentleman began talking about D-Day and how he was in the first wave to storm the beaches. One young man could not contain himself any longer and approached both men. He looked wide-eyed at the D-Day vet and asked ‘Wow, you were really there?’ to break the ice. The D-Day vet suddenly got animated and intense as he responded. ‘Was I there? You damned right I was there.’ He pulled out a pocket knife and then proceeded to stab himself in both legs right through his blue jeans. He said to the young man. ‘Both of my legs are still there somewhere.’ It was the best classroom you could have ever been in.”