When Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the orders for D-Day, the course of world history shifted as Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. Thousands of Americans took their last breath on the sands of bloody Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, but there’s a piece of American World War II history that is often overlooked. More than 172,000 Americans who lost their lives in World War II never returned to the United States. They are buried in 14 American military cemeteries overseas, which are managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). To help tell this important piece of American history, National History Day (NHD) and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University embarked on a project with the ABMC to re-imagine the teaching and learning of World War II in northern Europe.
The program, Understanding Sacrifice, took 18 interdisciplinary teachers on a yearlong academic journey that started in 2014, which included webinars and online discussions, and culminated in a 14-day trip to visit six ABMC cemeteries in northern Europe in July 2015. This video helps to share the journey of our teachers:
On Veterans Day, the team launched a new, free digital resource for teachers: www.ABMCeducation.org. This website includes 21 lesson plans created by American teachers who took that trip last summer to discover the stories of World War II fallen soldiers buried and memorialized overseas.
The site has many lesson plans suitable for an advanced high school class or college survey course. The lessons are designed to engage students in active learning while immersing them in primary and secondary sources. Many of these primary sources have rarely been used in American classrooms. They include “The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey” (1945), U.S. Army Individual Deceased Personnel Files, and short films produced by the U.S. government to help families understand their options for burial of loved ones after World War II.
These lessons incorporate historical thinking strategies and open opportunities for students to ask analytical questions and recognize the challenges faced during this often-overlooked phase of the war. Activities that you might want to consider exploring include:
- Students can forget that Allied victory was not a foregone conclusion. Confidence and Concerns: Allied Advances into Germany allows students to take the role of military planners and analyze the complex situation they faced in the late fall and early winter of 1944. Other lessons cover the Battle of the Atlantic, the unforeseen challenges of combat in the hedgerows in Normandy, and an analysis of the Battle of the Bulge.
- Historians and art historians might want to consider asking their students to Design a Battle Monument to commemorate sacrifice in wartime or analyze the impact of the Monuments Men in preserving European cultural heritage.
- Courses that blend in the history of science and technology could engage in a simulation on Advancements in Medical Technology during World War II.
- For professors looking to help students analyze visual sources, consider this lesson on World War II photography.
- Professors teaching future social studies educators might want to consider the story of the Akimoto family, who sent three sons to war while the parents were interned in Amache, Colorado. This lesson is accompanied with a young adult nonfiction text that tells the story of this family for middle-level readers.
Each lesson was inspired by the story of a fallen hero, someone who died in the war and is buried in or memorialized at one of the World War II ABMC cemeteries. These profiles provide short, accessible summaries, primary documents, and glimpses at the World War II home front. Don’t miss the stories of Chester Lane, a farm kid from Indiana known for taking care of his siblings; James Vrtatko, the son of Lithuanian immigrants from Chicago; Stanley Clark, the youngest of 12 siblings from Maine; or Henry Saaga, a Samoan boy from Honolulu who gave his life in the hedgerows.
In 2016 the program will move to the Mediterranean region and study the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, southern France, and the Seventh Army’s push into Germany.