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A Walk Through History

Normany trip brings World War II to life

Six decades have come and gone since U.S. troops engaged in fighting on the European continent during World War II. Thousands of books chronicle the battles and strategies of the war. Hundreds of films bring to life vivid images of the terror and brutality of combat. Statistics on the war are mind-boggling: some 400,000 American lives lost; 61 nations involved; more than six million Jews killed in the Holocaust; a trillion dollars spent.

But for a group of Hamilton sophomores, it was a solemn walk past long rows of white crosses at the American Cemetery in Normandy or the simple act of gathering a handful of sand on Omaha Beach that made the impact of World War II a reality.

One of the first of Hamilton's new sophomore seminars, The Politics and History of World War II offered an intense study of the military and political aspects of the war, important figures involved in the conflict and the effects on those who fought.

The course, designed by Maurice Isserman, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of History, and Philip Klinkner, the James S. Sherman Associate Professor of Government, became especially timely as the United States entered into the war in Iraq.

"World War II continues to raise questions about America's role in the world," Klinkner said. "The war shaped U.S. policy in balancing national security with civil rights, civil liberties and domestic priorities, the effects of which still resound today."

As part of the course, students traveled to France for 10 days in March where they visited some of the now famous landmarks of the European theatre: Omaha Beach, Ste-Mère-Église, Bastogne and other sites of the Battle of the Bulge. Prior to the trip, alumni veterans visited the class, and others shared their experiences with students through an online discussion group. 

"We designed the course to bring together two generations -- alumni veterans and the students of today. Five, or at most 10 years from now, this kind of course about World War II, drawing on the memories of those who fought it, simply will not be possible," Isserman said.

Sophomore seminars, required of all Hamilton students during their second year of study, are team-taught, interdisciplinary courses that culminate in integrative projects. Student research in the World War II course ranged from studies of internment camps, to implements of war, to social changes, including the roles of women on the homefront and African-Americans in the military.

Throughout the next few pages, students share some insights from the trip to Normandy.


Shauna Masi '05: March 19

Ben Turner '05 and Adam Kinney '05 standing in a shell hole at Pointe du Hoc.

Today we visited Ste-Mère-Église. During the early hours of June 6, 1944, pilots erroneously dropped some American paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division into the German-occupied town square. The sky was illuminated because of a fire at a village farmhouse, making the paratroopers easy targets. German soldiers basically massacred the Americans as they were descending. Many became entangled in trees or buildings and could do nothing to prevent being killed. The parachute of Private John Steele was caught on the church's steeple where he hung for hours and survived by feigning death.

Hamiltonians Who Gave Their Lives in World War II

Although I had read about Ste-Mère-Église for class and saw the depiction of what occurred there in The Longest Day, it was incredible to actually stand in the square. I could almost sense the fear and hopelessness the paratroopers must have experienced that day. I can't imagine what it was like for them that morning, falling into German fire with no way to escape.

The church is still there, and an effigy of John Steele hangs from the steeple. I especially can't imagine what D-Day was like for him. While everything was happening below him, the only thing he could do was pretend he was dead. You can still see bullet holes in the church's stone walls. Inside, there are stained glass windows -- the most interesting one depicting the Virgin Mary with paratroopers falling in the background.


Mike Osborne '05: March 18

I could sense the mood change the moment we stepped off the bus outside the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. The talking stopped, and each one of us grew more somber as we headed down the path from the visitor's center and turned the corner into the cemetery.

Although the sun had broken through earlier in the day, the sky was overcast as we walked past row after row of white markers, each a tribute to one of the 10,000 heroes buried there. The impact was indescribable -- at that moment I truly realized the sacrifices that were made by so many people during World War II.

Finally we stopped at one of the small, white crosses. It was the gravesite of Waldron M. Polgreen, Hamilton Class of 1931. Everyone gathered around as Kat Lexa knelt down to place a wreath next to the marker, and I read the names of all 52 Hamilton alumni who died in the war. I volunteered to read because I wanted to honor these men for the sacrifices they made. I felt that I owed them something, and honoring them at the ceremony was the least I could do. While I was reading, I was thinking about the families these brave men left behind. I thought about how young some of these men were, about the sacrifices they made, and how fortunate I was because of their heroism. The words "bravery," "courage," "heroism," "dedication" and "sacrifice" are defined by the actions of these men.

After I finished reading, the cemetery director arranged for the playing of Taps and then the national anthem. It was a very powerful moment.


Sharlene Slagen '05: March 18

Omaha Beach. A term so familiar, so commonplace in my vocabulary these days as a student studying World War II, yet nothing can compare with the actual experience of it. As I stood on the beach, I tried to re-create the scene of D-Day in my mind. I closed my eyes and breathed in the salty sea air. I could almost see the ominous beach obstacles, hear the deafening sounds of German gunfire, picture the American boats pull up to shore and then watch as the soldiers jumped into the ocean and headed for land. I opened my eyes, focusing on how far the ocean lay from the end of the beach where I stood. I had seen movie after movie about the D-Day invasion, but all of them had failed to capture the vast expanse of sand that stood between the ocean and the mainland. To think that a man could run that distance without being shot is nearly impossible. And yet, miraculously, many did.

I walked to the ocean's edge, watching the waves swirl about underneath the foamy water. I stared hard into the water, as if I were looking for something. I don't know what exactly. Perhaps a shell casing or a piece of a helmet, anything to prove to me that the men, the thousands of men who had given their lives, had not merely been swallowed up by the deep waters. The ocean seemed so innocent. It was just doing what it did every day, with the waves rolling in and lapping up onto the shore so calmly, so peacefully. June 5th, 1944, had been no different. No one would have guessed that it would become a scene of such horror and chaos in a mere 24 hours.

As I turned and headed back to the mainland, I thought about the symbolism of where I had just stood. Omaha Beach is so much more than just a sandy landscape in Northern France. It represents a place where thousands of American soldiers gave their lives in the name of freedom, where the world saw the courage and dignity of men who believed in their country and believed in their cause.


Sean Thorsen '05: March 21

Sean Thorsen '05 inspecting the inside of a burnt-out tank.

On our second night in Bastogne, a few of us decided to head down to L'Europa, one of the local bars, for a few drinks. When we arrived and sat down, the owner came over and introduced us to a little old man with a white beard sitting at a table nearby. The man introduced himself as Leo, and we soon found out that he was a WW II vet who had served with the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne after D-Day. This was quite a coincidence considering the motivation behind our trip.

Hamilton students gather around their new friend, Leo, after he presented each with a rose.

The old man fascinated me (and the young women in our group who accompanied us to L'Europa that night fascinated him!). I sat with Leo for a few hours as he told story after story about his experiences in Bastogne so many years ago. One of his most vivid memories involved a day when the Germans were advancing on the city with a panzer unit. As an engineer, Leo had to set charges on the bridge into town to stop them. He said that he could see the panzers approaching as he set the last charge, and then there were mortars falling all around him. He ran a few steps, and a mortar exploded where he had just been standing, so he ran a few more steps, and again a mortar fell behind him. Then, for some unknown reason, he stopped, and another mortar exploded directly in front of him. According to Leo, some divine force helped him survive that day.

 

And as I sat there listening to Leo, I realized that he was just as excited as I was. He loved having an audience for his tales, and I loved being that audience. Meeting Leo that night was the highlight of my trip. I found out later that he is a regular at L'Europa. He sits at his table every night drinking nothing but water, or as he liked to call it, "the strongest stuff on earth." I can picture him now, holding his cane triumphantly with a sly smirk on his face as he tells a dirty joke. Cheers Leo.


Ben Zanfagna '05: March 21

Nearly 60 years ago a young man in the 101st Airborne Division frantically clawed at the dark, rich earth of the Ardennes Forest outside of Bastogne, Belgium. He dug his foxhole quickly, slicing through pine roots with his standard-issue bayonet strapped to an M1 semi-automatic rifle. His main objectives: stay alive and kill Germans.

Lauren Fisher '05, Brendan Mahoney '05 and Professor Isserman by a Sherman tank outside the Airborne Museum in Ste-Mère-Église.

As I climbed through the Ardennes from one foxhole to the next, I imagined what it would have been like to fight in the bloodbath commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge. I wondered, would I have made it? Could my body, mind and heart have carried me through hell?

Never before had I questioned my mortality and the fragility of life as I did that day. I gave thanks to the elite, brave men of the 101st who preserved the liberties that bless all Americans. With the hairs on the back of my neck raised and goose bumps lining my arms, I scampered to my feet and caught the tour bus back to Bastogne.

The Night Before Christmas


During their visit to the Normandy American Cemetery, students honored Hamilton alumni who lost their lives in World War II by reading each of the 52 names. A wreath was also placed at the grave of Waldron Polgreen '31, who is buried at the cemetery overlooking the hallowed Omaha Beach. (Noah Plakun '05)

On Christmas Eve, 1944, almost 800 American soldiers lost their lives when a torpedo, fired from a German submarine, struck the transport ship S.S. Leopoldville off the coast of France. Delayed transmissions for help, choppy seas, freezing temperatures and holiday celebrations combined to stall a rescue attempt. In a matter of hours, the ship sank into the English Channel just north of Cherbourg.

The 2,235 GIs from the 66th Infantry Division were heading toward what would later be known as the Battle of the Bulge when the tragedy occurred. Among the dead was Waldron M. Polgreen '31.

At age 35, Polgreen was older than most of the men aboard the Leopoldville that night. A native of Albany, N.Y., he came to Hamilton for one year before transferring to Northeastern University. After graduating, he returned to Albany to work in his father's real estate and insurance office. He lived with his wife, Frances, and their two sons before he was drafted and went off to war. A third son was born in 1944.

Despite the fact that so many lives were lost in the incident, the British and U.S. governments sealed the details of the event until 1996 in what some believe was an attempt to cover up mistakes surrounding the tragedy.

Polgreen is one of 9,386 American soldiers buried at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, and the only Hamilton alumnus. For more information on Leopoldville, visit www.historychannel.com and search for "Sinking of the S.S. Leopoldville."

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