Walking in the footsteps of others provides a unique and impactful way to learn history. An immersive experience takes education beyond books and films, as seniors Jacob King and Annie Waters learned this summer during their time as Mike Thornton Fellows with The National World War II Museum’s Normandy Academy.
In the 12-day program, Jacob and Annie first traveled to New Orleans where they toured the museum in depth, met with veterans and college professors, and researched fallen soldiers. Their group of 24 students and their guides then flew to Paris to begin the second portion of the Academy experience.
Using Bayeux, France, as their home base, they visited numerous sites, including museums dedicated to World War II, the Normandy beaches and the American cemetery in Normandy, which overlooks Omaha Beach. Bayeux served as a strategic gateway for the Allied soldiers during the war. The town was not destroyed and was well positioned to serve as a medical center to treat wounded soldiers and civilians.
Each student presented a two-minute report at the grave of the fallen soldier they selected to research in New Orleans. Annie’s subject was Charles E. Grady, a member of the 82nd Airborne division; Jacob’s was Henry Blankenship, a soldier among the first to land on Omaha Beach. The students each laid a flower on the grave of the soldier they profiled.
From Bayeux, the students visited numerous neighboring cities to tour their museums and historic sites, including areas where the “Band of Brothers” 2001 miniseries was filmed. Some museums were dedicated solely to one aspect of the war, such as the Battle of Normandy, the Canadian role or the U.S. role. They learned about the airborne operations, the boat landings at the Normandy beaches, the French Resistance, the bombings designed to push back German troops and other aspects of the war.
They were surprised to see that many of the towns were still somewhat in war-like conditions. They observed bullet holes in the walls and bloodstains on the pews of a church they visited.
The trip as a whole encapsulated the war and greatly impacted the students. “You see how massive the war was and the individual human cost,” Jacob said. “It was very influential.”
Annie offered advice to any students who receive the fellowship: “Cherish your time there, keep a personal journal during the trip and make bonds with everyone on the trip,” she said. Annie and Jacob have maintained connections with the other students in their group and hope to cross paths with them again.
The Normandy Academy scholarship opportunity (including flights, tuition and meals) was made possible thanks to the generosity of HIES grandparents Shellie and Tee Baur and is named in memory of Middle School history faculty member and lacrosse coach Mike Thornton.
“I want high schoolers to understand the price of freedom,” Mr. Baur said. “These soldiers were not much older than high school and it’s important to learn about them.”
Each year, two HIES students (rising juniors or rising seniors) will be selected as Mike Thornton Fellows.
Applications for the 2023 program are open until Monday, Nov. 28, 2022.
— Christina Mimms