Harold Williams was there. On June 6, 1944, he and thousands of other young men landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
Betty Clark was there. She worked as a dietician at military hospitals in North Africa and Italy during World War II. Allan Atwell was there: He fought at the Battle of the Bulge and earned a Purple Heart. Bill Leunig was at the Battle of the Bulge too.
Bruce Barnes was a cryptologist during the Korean War. Bruce Mendini worked at an electronics lab on Okinawa during Vietnam; his two brothers served during the war too. Paul Bedard worked as a submarine technician under the Arctic. Ed Jordan and Tom Peppas both fought on river boats during the Vietnam War. Peppas earned a Purple Heart.
On Tuesday, these service members were at Niskayuna High School, where students spent the morning meeting with and listening to nearly three dozen veterans from five American wars – WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“These people have done a lot for you,” Frank DeSorbo, president of the Patriot Flight nonprofit, told the students during an assembly for the entire junior class. “You may not have realized it or thought about it, but they deserve your respect.”
The veterans’ stories drew the students back into history – to a time that seems another world until the person in front of you is conveying their direct life experience. Allan Atwell recalled listening to his radio as a 16-year-old, the age of many of the Niskayuna students, when the news broke in to report the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
“I can’t remember how I got up that early,” Atwell said. “Right then I could visualize I was going to be in this conflict, and it wasn’t good.”
When Williams described his Normandy landing – in extraordinary detail for a morning over 72 years ago – most of the students listened in rapt attention. He told them about having to clear bodies from the beach so his ship could lift down its ramp; he recalled the blood in the water and the slow march up the sandy shores of the beach.
“Yes, there was red on the water that morning,” he said. “Some of them were still wounded and bleeding at the beach.”
He said there are some things he will never forget from that day and others he wish he could forget. But he will never let go of the eternal question that surely haunts every D-Day survivor – and countless other veterans of war.
“This is what me and all my comrades ask: Why did we make and the others didn’t? I want to thank God that I can be here to help young people remember that freedom isn’t free.”
The program, which social studies teacher Steve Eichfeld said would be repeated in future years, came together after junior John Drazba won an essay contest put on by the Patriot Flight group. As the best writer of an essay on “What Freedom Means to You?” Drazba will get to join veterans on a trip to Washington next month to visit the different war memorials.
“It’s all about them [the veterans]; I just want to be there to learn as much as I can,” Drazba said.
And the veterans underscored the role of freedom and American values in the work that they did. One said veterans wrote a blank check to the U.S. government – a check payable up to “your life.”
“I’ve seen poverty, and I’ve seen oppression. I’ve seen things done in the name of governments that would never happen in the U.S. – I hope would never happen,” said Robert Porter, who served with the Marines for over 20 years, including time in Iraq. “You cannot appreciate how well you have it here until you have seen how people have it in other countries.”
After the veterans participated in a series of panel discussions, including smaller ones when the students asked questions directly, the students greeted and thanked the veterans one by one. Afterward a handful of students stayed behind, listening intently to more war stories.
“I’ve played video games with those battles; I’ve read books with all those battles. I realized how precious this was, because a lot of WWII vets are gone,” senior Jack Weingarten said. “That’s why I hung around up here.”