World War II project unites teens with the pastWritten by Joel Sensenig | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
While World War II remains a popular setting in video games and movies, many of today’s teenagers are familiar in only a peripheral way with the war that ended 70 years ago.
A project undertaken by 33 Toledo high school students ensures the lessons of the war hit home.
As part of their semester-long studies in a WWII course, students from Rogers, Scott, Start, Waite and Woodward high schools will present the stories of Toledoans killed in the global conflict during the second annual Fallen Heroes Memorial Assembly, set for 10 a.m. Dec. 15 at the Waite High School auditorium.
For the past several months, these students have used a number of national and local resources to research a fraction of the more than 1,000 veterans from Lucas County who died in the war. In that time, they’ve tracked down school activities, family names and addresses, career paths and military histories of their subjects.
Joe Boyle, a social studies teacher at Waite, got the idea for the project after taking part in a World War II project called the Normandy Scholars Institute, sponsored by National History Day. As part of the project, Boyle and a student from Rogers traveled to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. for a week to study with scholars of the war and spent another week in Normandy, France, they were learning from the battlegrounds before ending with a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery, where students read graveside eulogies of the veterans they had been studying.
“For a number of reasons, it was one of the most powerful moments of my life,” Boyle said. His great uncle, Sgt. Paul Boyle, is buried at the cemetery. “I grew up with stories of my Uncle Paul, and that’s what got me involved in history in the first place.”
After thinking of ways he could duplicate the international experience back home, Boyle came up with the plan to have students learn about Toledoans who died in World War II and also writing eulogies for them, which will be read at the assembly Dec. 15.
“The most important thing to me was the war became personal [to them],” Boyle said. “I think pop culture is doing a better job than it did maybe 10 years ago, but a lot of World War II pop culture really glorifies the war. I hate to say it makes it look like a video game when we’re actually talking about video games here, but kids play ‘Call of Duty,’ and it’s fun and the war looks like it was a great adventure. What I want them to get out of this project is it wasn’t a video game for these guys. These were guys just like you and I from Toledo who went off and did extraordinary things and paid the ultimate price.”
Dylan Reed, a Waite senior, studied the life of Harry Brooks, a Toledo resident who died in 1943 after his B-24, nicknamed “Superman,” was attacked. The bombardier of the plane was Louis Zamperini, a man whose story was chronicled in the book “Unbroken.” The story will be released Christmas Day as a major motion picture produced and directed by Angelina Jolie. Brooks is a character in the movie.
Reed, a wrestler, said he admires the mental toughness Brooks showed after sustaining his injuries.
“He held on for nine days after he was hit in the head with two pieces of shrapnel,” Reed said. “He obviously didn’t lack the fighting spirit. Which makes him a true hero. I hope to carry some of that mental toughness with me, to help me get through life, in order to be successful. As a wrestler, you never stop going until you hear the whistle, and that seems like something Harry Brooks would understand.”
Sylvia Rombach, a junior at Waite, studied the life of Baird Brooks Jr., a Waite alum who was rejected from three different branches of the military four times. He died near Rome, in June 1944, days before Rome was liberated by the Allies.
“This project really opened up a new interest for me,” Rombach said. “To learn all about someone who was sitting in the same place I do every day, and had the courage to go into the military right out of high school to fight in a world war is extraordinary. This project was far more intriguing than any other project I’ve done.”
Rombach said the perseverance Brooks displayed will stick with her.
“He never gave up on anything,” she said. “I look up to my fallen hero, and I’m fascinated by the fact that he never gave up despite his flaws. I try to do everything with a can-do attitude and do my best in all of my endeavors. He is a great inspiration.”
Boyle, who teaches students in each of the high schools through a distance learning program, is passionate about the project.
“There is a spirit that moves behind the scenes that makes this project magical,” he said, noting that the surprising facts learned about these subjects never cease to amaze him. “It never occurred to me that there would be a Toledo connection to Zamperini’s story.”
For the instructor, seeing the students identify with local people who paid the ultimate sacrifice is most gratifying.
“I try to reiterate this to the kids again and again and again: You come from a city of heroes,” Boyle said. “This city gets run down so much. There’s so much negative about Toledo all the time, and it’s hard to find role models that aren’t sullied by something. Every one of these kids has found a way to grab on to these guys from 70 years ago, from the same city, and find something to believe in. It’s my favorite thing about this.” O