Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Walking in the Footsteps of Heroes and History" - My research proposal

"People of Western Europe: A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. This landing is part of the concerted United Nations' plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with our great Russian allies ... I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us. Keep your faith staunch. Our arms are resolute. Together we shall achieve victory." Broadcast by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944.

I am both honored and humbled to be chosen as the Wright Family Distinguished Faculty Chair. I see the position as both a privilege and a challenge, and I hope I am able to live up to the expectations associated with it. I am very grateful for the selection.

Ever since my 8th grade trip to Washington DC, I have always felt that history must be experienced in order to be understood and appreciated. That trip was the first time I really walked in the “footsteps of history”, and also the first time I visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and began developing my respect for the men and women in America’s armed forces. Since then, my love for history, specifically American history, has grown through my profession as a teacher, my personal reading and research, and my good fortune of historical travel. I hold service to our country in high esteem, and since I have never worn a uniform, I see part of my job as teaching students about the sacrifices made by Americans past and present. The combination of a passion for history and an admiration for our soldiers has taken me to battlefields and memorials across the country, led me to assist in service projects for veterans, and driven my desire to teach about the conflicts our country has faced and the valor of the men and women who have defended America since the 18th century. It would a great professional and personal honor to travel to England and France and walk in the footsteps of heroes and history at Normandy.

“The stakes in the venture were enormous … success would mean liberation of enslaved Western Europe; failure would result in a stalemate, possibly of years … Overlord had to succeed”. John D. Eisenhower, introduction to D-Day – The Greatest Invasion

It started with a simple order – “Okay, we’ll go” – and led to the liberation of France, the demise of Nazi Germany, and (trying not to sound trite) the future of freedom in Western Europe. Operation Overlord was and is the largest amphibious operation in military history, utilizing the best of the Allied air, sea, and land forces. I plan on researching and retracing this crucial event of the 20th century through reading and travel, following the movement of Overlord from England to the beaches of Normandy, leading to the small villages of northern France and ending in Paris for liberation.

The American (and Allied) efforts to prepare, execute, and sustain the invasion of Fortress Europe speaks to the incredible effort of the military from the highest ranking general to the daring paratrooper to the buck private hitting the beaches. I will use the voices of these men (and in some cases, women) as I research and travel. Through oral histories and primary source documents, I hope to put a place and a feel (as much as one can) to the amazing firsthand accounts available on Overlord. Walking on Omaha Beach will be an amazing experience, but doing so with the words of the men who served there will transcend simple history.

My research proposal is to investigate the American experience in the preparation for and invasion of German occupied France in 1944 – Operation Overlord, or D-Day. I have a decent background about the turning point of World War II through some personal reading, teaching about the invasion to 8th graders, and visiting the D-Day Museum in New Orleans a few years ago. To extend my knowledge of the event, I plan on reading thorough works on D-Day, including primary source material from the men involved. I currently have Omaha Beach by Joseph Balkoski, D-Day, The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor, and D-Day – The Greatest Invasion – A People’s History by Dan Van Der Vat. I also have multiple videos ordered from the Milwaukee Public Library and hope to watch as many as possible before heading to Europe. In addition, I have some excellent travel guides on France in general and Normandy in particular. (I think historical travel consultant will be my retirement gig).

"What a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place." British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressing House of Commons, June 6, 1944.

To begin the travel, I will fly to London and take a coach to Portsmouth, a seaport on the English Channel. Portsmouth was one of the headquarters and departure points for the Overlord invasion. While in Portsmouth, I plan to visit the D-Day Museum and Overlord Embroidery Museum. While Portsmouth was not the major location for the American troops, it does have the best museum in the coastal England and also provides the best ferry route to the Normandy beaches.

"Normandy is marked by the landings. It is inscribed in people's hearts, in memories, in stone, in rebuilding, in memorial plaques, in street names, everywhere." Rev. Rene-Denis Lemaigre, priest of Lisieux.

I would love to actually “storm the beaches”, but my persistence in searching for such a voyage has turned up dry. I still feel that water travel is more suitable to the topic than taking the Chunnel, so will arrive in Caen (actually, Ouistreham) in order to get to Normandy. I plan to use Bayeux, one of the only area towns not destroyed in the war, as my base in northern France. I will travel to Omaha and Utah Beaches, sites of the American landings in 1944, and tour the historical sites and multiple museums available on the coast, including Pointe du Hoc, Ste. Mère Eglise, Arromanches, and Caen. (These museums are listed in the funding proposal.) Most importantly (to me), I will spend time at the American cemetery on the bluff above Omaha Beach, paying respect to the over 9,000 Americans who gave the fullest measure of devotion to liberate France. These locations will help me understand and appreciate the “last full measure of devotion” that President Lincoln spoke of eighty years prior to Overlord.

After two days in northern France, I will take a train south to Paris to visit local sites pertaining to the Allied liberation of France’s capital. The WWII Walking Tour will be the focus of my visit, which details the German occupation of France, the Resistance Movement, and the Battle of Paris. I will also try to see the really big tower that I have heard so much about.

As I prepare for the journey, travel to Europe, and return and reflect, I will share my experience online through a travel blog. I am still working on a great title (now called "Footsteps of Overlord") for it, but once developed, I will send it to the members of the USM community and encourage them to follow.

Once I have completed my journey, I plan to bring my experience and learning to University School in many ways. Obviously, my classroom instruction will be enhanced with my knowledge and experience, and I feel an individual lesson on D-Day will be engaging and informative for my 8th grade students. If curricular materials are available at the many historical locations and museums, I will try to obtain those that are pertinent to our curricula at USM. I am also hoping to develop a primary source collection (including militaria) dedicated to Overlord, and I hope to purchase materials (real and replica) as I travel. Such a collection can be used in my class and shared with other classes, especially the fourth graders in their study of WWII.

I also want to present my experience, “Walking in the Footsteps of Heroes and History”, to the larger USM community, possibly to the Upper School, Middle School, or any members of the community that would like to attend after school or in the evening. I have some ideas about making the experience somewhat interactive, based on primary sources. I will also gladly write an article for USM publication. If possible, I would like to connect the writing to the USM family by finding alumni from the WWII era and listening to their stories of the time.

Finally, I want like to use the experience to renew the 8th grade service project for Honor Flights. We had an amazing experience with this in 2009, and I feel that the project is a natural component of my overall experience. If it is not out of the mission of the Wright Family Distinguished Faculty Chair, I would like to use presentations and publications to help raise money to fund trips for WWII veterans to Washington DC to see their memorial on the National Mall.

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