Lighting the Way
Bringing Lessons from WWII Veterans to Today’s Students
The 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day—May 8, 2015—was blisteringly hot and humid in Washington, DC. A crowd of several thousand had gathered at and close to the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall for commemorative ceremonies and a truly awesome flyover by 56 vintage planes in 15 formations.
I was the nervous master of ceremonies that day, tasked with introducing veterans, diplomats, National Security Advisor Susan Rice—herself the daughter of a Tuskegee airman—and other officials before a rapturous crowd, one of the largest assembled since the World War II Memorial’s dedication in 2004. As a British-born author of books about World War II, I was honored to be asked to address dozens of World War II veterans seated at the memorial that day. They included a former pilot who watched as the plane he had flown, the B-29, roared overhead.
Since then, I have kept in touch with the Friends of the National World War II Memorial, the organizer of the commemoration. Founded in 2007 by those who built the memorial, the Friends have since brought visitors together for ceremonies and experiences honoring veterans and remembering all they achieved and for educational programs centered on the themes of American unity, shared values and ideals, and the spirit of community. Their aims resonated with me after spending much of my adult life writing about the heroics of so many men and women who deserve to not be forgotten.
When the Friends invited me to emcee the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June 2019, there were far fewer veterans in attendance. Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II in uniform, fewer than 168,000 are alive today, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. In recent years, even the sturdiest have passed away with saddening regularity. I once again returned to the memorial in December 2019 to commemorate those who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. This time, the number of veterans present was in single digits. I realized that within just a few years, there would be none.
Then, in the fall of 2021, thanks to a Department of Defense grant to the Friends, I found myself visiting several high schools in Washington, DC, and Virginia, tasked with trying to inspire students to appreciate and perhaps emulate the so-called “Greatest Generation.”
Aware that so few World War II veterans remain, I had resolved with the Friends to bring the stories of some of the men and women I have written about directly to students in their classrooms. The Friends’ mission had evolved to be ever more education-focused. I even helped provide a new slogan for our efforts: “teaching the lessons of yesterday to unite the generations of tomorrow.”
My first school visit in rural Virginia was a revelation. I knew the state fairly well, having visited many times since 2001, when I began researching my book The Bedford Boys, about the community of Bedford, Virginia, and its extraordinary sacrifice. On D-Day, 20 sons of Bedford County were lost in the first wave on Omaha Beach. This story provoked the expected reactions, but I was surprised that so many among my audience reacted so positively to another story I told—about an officer, Felix Sparks, who had risen through the ranks as he led others throughout the liberation of Western Europe.
The intervening decades slipped away as students asked themselves what they would do if they were drafted to fight fascism.
In guiding students along Sparks’s journey through Italy, France, and Germany, I used powerful, often harrowing images of war in the raw and of the unimaginable inhumanity that Sparks and his men encountered on April 29, 1945, at the Dachau concentration camp—Nazi Germany’s first, established in 1933. I stressed at the outset that I could be telling a story about my actual audience, pointing to images of young Americans, some still teenagers, as they marched fearfully toward combat at Anzio in January 1944. The intervening decades slipped away quickly as students asked themselves what they would do if they were drafted to fight fascism, if they encountered the enormity of the Holocaust, if they had to lay aside their differences and put their lives on the line as a group, knowing that disunity in the fiercest combat could lead to catastrophic defeat. Since that first visit, in school after school, private and public, students have written in surveys that they felt inspired by the story of Sparks and his fellow soldiers. Some have remarked that they feel genuinely proud to be American for the first time. They too want to give back, to find “a cause greater than self” as one World War II veteran I speak about explained his own sense of purpose in defeating Nazism.
The lessons of World War II are eternally relevant. Young people understand the perils of prejudice when shown images of Nazism’s victims at Dachau. I tell classes how Hitler targeted Jews and others, increasing his popularity and power by fanning the flames of hatred. After my visits, students know why treating others as inferior, whether due to their religion, sexuality, creed, or color, is so dangerous. I now visit schools across the country, convinced that the practice of public history is more important than ever. It is a vital tool in combating the decay of democracy. And there is so much work to be done: the Wall Street Journal reported that since 1998 Americans’ faith in values such as patriotism, religion, and hard work has declined dramatically—especially among young people.
By telling gripping, inspiring stories of Americans who united and sacrificed to defeat Nazism and preserve democracy, we at the Friends are doing, I believe, what so many of the “greatest generation” would want. We are showing a new generation how to find the light that will guide their and our nation’s way.
Alex Kershaw is the resident historian of Friends of the National World War II Memorial and the author of 12 books on World War II. He tweets @kershaw_alex.
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