National History Day

Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom

Immediately following the National History Day Contest, our summer institute began.  The institute involves high school student and teacher teams from 15 affiliates to study the invasion of Normandy in WWII.  For 5 months prior to the start of the institute this past Saturday, participants read and discussed readings of primary and secondary sources and researched a fallen soldier from their area (more on that later).

The first half of the on-site program involved lectures by distinguished historians and visits to monuments and museums.  The following are thoughts from one of the student/teacher teams:

“Like the Albert Small Normandy Scholars holding them, the World War II-era yearbooks came from rural areas, industrial cities, farm towns. In their pages were teenagers just like these kids, separated only by yellowed paper and a span of seventy years. Sure, there were differences; these modern day students from Vermont to Washington, and Minnesota to Texas, have never personally known the societal mobilization for war that those black-and-white faces smiling back at them knew. They’ve never had a yearbook in which the front page commemorates 13 gold star alumni, and over 800 blue star alumni, as the 1945 Kankakee High annual did.

Wednesday, as National World War II Museum History Day coordinator Nathan Huegen led the Normandy Scholars through a primary source activity using those yearbooks, commonalities between the different generations of American kids blossomed to the surface: A sense of sacrifice and duty. A belief in justice and equality. A commitment, as strong now as it was 70 years ago, that what was offered at the altar of freedom should never be forgotten. This emotional experience of connecting with the young people who fought and died was preceded by two superb lectures in the morning led by experts on the Naval logistics of the invasion of Europe, and on intelligence and counter-intelligence operations in advance of the Allied landings.

Every National History Day student and teacher knows full well the importance of gathering information, analyzing sources, and above all, figuring out the logistics of organizing your information and material for the greatest effect on judges. Today’s lectures reinforced how what’s true for NHD is true in the grand strategy of war. Dr. Randy Papadopoulos, Secretariat Historian for the Secretary of the Navy, discussed the extraordinary level of planning required to carry out Operation NEPTUNE, the Navy plan to clear a safe path through the English Channel. While many of us – teachers and students alike – have considered the combat aspects of the invasion, Dr. Papadopoulos opened our eyes to the intricate planning it took to move several hundred thousand men on more than 5,000 ships in a precise fashion. Connecting to every student’s experience of watching reality shows about wedding planning, he compared it to “organizing 1,000 weddings at once while someone’s shooting at you!”

Dr. Ray Batvinis, an expert on intelligence operations, followed with a riveting lecture on the information war in Europe. Virtually everyone was on the edge of their seats as Dr. Batvinis walked us through  the strategic-level deception plans, and then into the fascinating details of the signals intelligence victories of Ultra and Magic, and the almost cinematic tale of the Garbo “network” of counter intelligence.

This afternoon, we’re all preparing for our personal NEPTUNE – strategically washing clothes, packing bags, and gathering the intel we need for our big jump-off tomorrow evening when the classroom work we’ve done for the past six months leads us to the Norman countryside.”

— Joe Boyle, teacher, Ohio

“There are few days when teenagers can honestly say they had an amazing time at a
lecture. In fact, there are few teenagers who can say that they had fun in a college
classroom ever! 

Today was definitely different, however. When  you go through a process of learning
so much about World War II, the tiny details you don't hear about in a regular
classroom start to creep out of the floorboards. 

Before today, I had no idea that the Allies and the Axis Powers both had so much to
do with secret agents and spies. Today we learned about "Garbo" a Spanish man who
started out as a farmer, then worked his way into Hitler's trust. It was amazing to
learn about the effect that double agents had to play in the war, especially because
this is the first time I have ever heard about it. I do not kid when I say every
tired and groggy student, including myself, were on the edge of their seats in
attention to Dr. Batvinis. 

These are the kinds of things that make this trip so special and life-changing.
This, I can honestly say, is what education is all about.”
-- Samantha, student, Ohio
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