Glenwood students reflect on WWII learning tour in Normandy
Glenwood Springs High School senior Erin Bucchin acknowledges that many younger Americans have lost touch with an important turning point in the history of the United States and Europe.
That’s why she and two of her fellow GSHS students were grateful to have the opportunity to take a learning tour last summer to Normandy, France, to learn about World War II history and the sacrifices made by American soldiers and the other Allied forces in June 1944.
“We as Americans have gotten kind of disconnected from that history,” Bucchin said during a presentation to the Glenwood Springs Rotary Club on Friday. “It was nice to meet people and hear them talk about their parents, and things that happened in their town or to their house during the war.
“It just made everything seem real, and helped all of us understand the fact that they live with what happened every single day. It definitely made me think about what I thought I knew about World War II,” she said.
Added GSHS junior Gisely Torres, “Before this trip I think we were all kind of oblivious and maybe a little ignorant about that part of our history. We understand that better now, and we hope we can help spread that knowledge.”
Bucchin, Torres and GSHS junior Dylan Uren were among nine high school students from the Roaring Fork Valley who received scholarships last spring to travel to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans in June, followed by a museum-led tour of the battlefields on the beaches of Normandy, France.
Scholarship sponsor Paul Bushong of Aspen Glen worked with the Aspen Community Foundation, putting up $30,000 of his own money to help make it happen. The main thing he asked in return from the students was that, upon their return, they share their experiences and what they learned back at their schools and in other venues.
“The kids really enjoyed the trip, sure,” Bushong, an 88-year-old Korean War veteran, said. “But that wasn’t the purpose. What I wanted them to do was come home and spread these stories before they’re completely forgotten.”
The Rotary presentation was part of that effort. Students in Carbondale, Basalt and Aspen who also took part in the tour are looking for similar opportunities to do the same.
Uren said the museum in New Orleans gave the students a good overview of WWII history, including visits to the Arsenal of Democracy and exhibits including the Road to Berlin, the Road to Tokyo and the Freedom Pavilion.
The visit to the various museums, monuments, battle sites, cemeteries and historical markers in Normandy, along with the discussions they had with the French people, had the greatest effect, he said.
“It was just amazing to see the direct connections to the people who live there today and who still express how much they appreciate the Americans for liberating their country,” Uren said.
The cemeteries in particular piqued Uren’s interest.
Curious about the fallen enemy German soldiers who were buried alongside the Allied French, Canadian, British and American soldiers, he asked the French tour guide if they were offended by that.
“They didn’t even think twice, and thought it was kind of strange that I would ask,” Uren said. “They said, a death is a death, and it was too bad they had to die, too.”
Uren was also struck by the French tradition of placing an American flag on the grave of a soldier in the American cemetery above Omaha Beach every D-Day on June 6, and then making an effort to contact the family to let them know they still remember.
The students were given a flower to place on one of the graves themselves.
“I’m in the process of contacting the family of the soldier where I placed my flower, to tell them the story about what I learned,” Uren informed the Rotary gathering.
Torres said she was curious why the American soldiers would be buried in France instead of the bodies being returned home for burial.
“We learned that it’s because that’s where they had fallen, and in honor of helping their country they wanted them to be able to stay there,” Torres said. At the American Cemetery, she placed her flower on the grave of a soldier from Colorado who died on D-Day.
Bucchin is using what she learned on the Normandy tour as part of her senior Capstone project. That includes telling the story of Collette Marin-Catherine, who at age 13 was part of the French Resistance Movement while her older brothers were fighting in the war. Both were lost on D-Day.
“When she finished her story, pretty much everyone was crying because it was so moving,” Bucchin said.
One of the more memorable experiences, Bucchin said, was having lunch at the very mansion where German field General Erwin Rommel dined, just before taking his life after he had been implicated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Bushong said he believes the events at Normandy were perhaps the most significant of the 20th century. He, too, visited the sites at Normandy about 30 years ago and said he was just as moved by the experience as the students he helped send there earlier this year.
“We don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t succeeded there,” he said of the defeat of the Germans in France that eventually brought an end to the war.
Bushong is drumming up additional financial support to try to expand the scholarship program to include one or two more students. The trip costs $3,700 per student, all but $700 of which Bushong covered.
“With the kids out there spreading the word, we might get anywhere from 20 to 30 applicants this year,” he said.
Next year’s students may be asked to pick up a little more of the cost themselves, but any further expansion would benefit from additional donations to the program through the Aspen Community Foundation, he said.
Students must be in an upper-level history class and can apply in either their sophomore or junior year for the summer tour. That’s so that they have at least one more year of high school in which to come back and share their experiences, Bushong said.
The program is open to students at Glenwood Springs, Roaring Fork, Basalt and Aspen high schools.