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World War II stories come to life in Europe for IU Kokomo students

July 24, 2018

KOKOMO, Ind. — The cost of freedom is starkly real at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

The peaceful, pristine site contains the graves of 9,385 U.S. military members, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations — along with the Wall of the Missing, inscribed with the names of 1,557 lost and never found.

It was a sight that moved Indiana University Kokomo student Sarah Gill to tears, especially as the granddaughter of a veteran.

“You realize how many people died, not just for the freedom of the French people, but for everyone,” the Peru resident said. “I couldn’t imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t saved France, and Germany had taken over all of Europe and England.”

She noted that it is an American cemetery, pristinely maintained by French people. Gill was stirred by the depth of gratitude the French have for Americans, for their role in World War II. 

Gill was among nine IU Kokomo students who shared that experience, during a 14-day trip visiting sites significant to World War II, for a class taught by Kristen Snoddy, senior lecturer in English.

“The ultimate impact of the students’ travel experience is, they returned with a more concrete understanding of the price of freedom, as well as motivation to articulate the value of freedom to others,” Snoddy said, adding that it was “a joy and a privilege” for herself and Sarah Heath, associate professor of history, to share those experiences with the students.

“Spending a day on the Normandy beaches listening to a French guide’s retelling of the D-Day invasion, or standing in the Amsterdam Secret Annex of the Frank family, or sitting across the table in Guernsey with people while they share the joy of their island’s liberation from the German occupation, simply cannot be replicated through the very best film or reading,” she said.

Stops included the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where the teen diarist lived in hiding with seven other people for two years, the beach at Normandy, France, where Allied troops began the assault that freed Europe from Nazi rule, the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz in Germany, where Adolph Hitler devised the “final solution” of approximately six million Jews and others considered undesirable, and the island of Guernsey, which was occupied by German forces from 1940 to 1945.

On Guernsey, they met Molly Bihet, who was 9 years old when the Nazis arrived on the island. She later wrote the book A Child’s War, detailing what it was like to live on the island, which is off the coast of Normandy in the English Channel.

Jake Wilson recorded their meeting, and appreciated the chance to hear a first-person account of a time he’d only read about previously.

“You can read about it all day long in a textbook or on the internet, but seeing it first hand, and being in those places is life-changing,” he said. “There aren’t many people left who can tell stories like that, with such detail. It was an amazing opportunity to talk about a time in history from someone who lived it.”

It was a privilege to hear Bihet’s story, Gill said. 

“We’re the last generation to meet the people who lived this history,” she said. “You realize that these perspectives won’t be around much longer, and it’s critical that we take the opportunity to listen and learn from them. The next generation will never meet these people and hear these stories in person. It’s important that we remember our history, learn from it, and not allow it to repeat itself.”

Since returning, Wilson, from Kempton, is more passionate than ever about being a history teacher, and looks forward to sharing his experience with his own students. He recalls coming home from elementary school angry because World War II was covered in less than a page in his history book.

“I think from that point on, it was my goal to keep that history alive,” he said. “As we walked around the cemetery at Normandy, I kept thinking that every one of those people died for our freedom. Keeping that history alive is the least we can do to honor them, in my view.”

Students received campus scholarships to help defray travel expenses, including the Emita B. Hill Travel Scholarship and the Selzer International Studies Scholarship.

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 07/24/2018