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Normandy American Cemetery: Our Students' Eulogies

Bill's name is visible on the First Infantry Division Memorial found between the Normandy American Cemetery and Omaha Beach. 

The culmination of our Normandy Institute experience took place on Tuesday with the students’ eulogies. Each of our students had the task of offering appropriate words of remembrance at their soldier’s grave. Typically these eulogies lasted approximately five minutes. We worked through the cemetery from back to front, which means Lauren offered her words second. Altogether fifteen students spoke. I didn’t once feel tempted to look at my phone or check the time.

It was the most meaningful day I’ve spent with students in a long time.

Our procedure at each grave followed the same pattern. Lynne and Amanda would scout out where the grave was and the rest of the group would find them there. At each grave, Frank would assist the student in putting sand on the soldier’s name, rank, unit, and state so that the information would stand out. The student would have to then scrub down the face of the gravestone with a sponge so as to remove the excess dirt. After that, their teacher helped them plant two flags, an American to the left and a French to the right. Upon placing a rose at the foot of the grave, the student presented their eulogy, with Dr. Gorn taking photos and their teacher usually recording it with their phone or camera.

I could tell Lauren was somewhat nervous about her presentation. It was a tough eulogy to write in three ways. One, her soldier’s full name and rank is long and filled with lots of hard consonants, an easy name to mix up when speaking: First Lieutenant Edmund Duckworth. Secondly, it was challenging to condense the vast information we found into an orderly and appropriately concise address. And then there was the challenge of avoiding clich√© in her address. When she rehearsed it the night before she was rushing, which I attributed to nerves. Her pacing was much better on the actual day. She admitted to me later that it got very hard to not cry as she entered the second paragraph of her prepared words.

She began with how Cornelius Ryan related some incorrect details regarding Bill’s death in his famous book The Longest Day. She then moved into his service record (he was a veteran of two previous campaigns and had earned a Silver Star for courageous deeds in each). She also shared the anecdote we discovered that Bill broke out a bottle of scotch and shared a drink with two sergeants while pinned down on the beach that day. He did so five minutes before a sniper killed him.

Lauren shared a couple of meaningful photos of Bill. Most students showed at least one that they had found. Jennifer, one of the teachers, furnished the students with transparent sleeves (she bought a box of fifty at Staples). Most of the students left their photo at the foot of the grave.

Sgt. Andersen's grave as Travis left it. 

One student, Travis, left a very interesting set of mementos. He left a small American flag, a small Hawaiian flag, and a lei on the grave of Sgt. Andersen. Travis is one of three students on this trip seriously considering a career in the military. In fact, I think he’s already committed to it, though it’s unclear if he’ll be doing so via a service academy or ROTC. He cut a striking figure in his uniform today.

Another student considering serving in the armed forces, Ken (or Evan . . . he is trying to determine which he prefers), left everyone in tears with his eulogy. He wrote of an interesting soldier, one who was older than most. Drafted in 1943. Something of a reluctant, though dutiful, warrior. He longed to survive the war and return to the thing that was most important to him, his family. Ken found something very meaningful in that soldier’s story, and he identified contours of his own life in his soldier’s story.

I’ve come to know these students over the past week and a half, and the eulogies had extra meaning because of the way in which their personalities were wrapped into the eulogies they offered. Jay, a young man with some real acting talent, had recently completed a successful NHD project on Winston Churchill. In hearing his eulogy, which elicited laughter in parts, I couldn’t help but hear Churchillian rhythms toward his conclusion. Dylan couldn’t help but lapse into his Boston area accent as he eulogized a soldier whose sister called him a “wicked tease.” Rebecca eulogized a chaplain. Why did she choose a chaplain? In respect for her teacher, Paul, she wanted to select a Coast Guard fallen hero. But none from North Carolina are buried at Normandy. So she found a Catholic chaplain out of honor of her teacher (my roommate, who I've come to know as a truly faithful servant).

Every student’s eulogy was meaningful, and I savored the three hours or so I spent hearing these stories, stories that included front-line soldiers as well as service personnel, airmen and men on foot. Several were lost, tragically, in accidents, such as one soldier who was one of approximately 90 killed in a careless railroad accident. We concluded at the Wall of the Missing, where two students’ soldiers were listed. Marc presented on a soldier who died on the Leopoldville, a troop carrier torpedoed in the channel several weeks after D-Day. As he delivered his eulogy, I was struck at seeing all the other names of that division, the 88th Infantry, listed on that wall.

We had approximately an hour after the eulogies. Most kids used it to retrieve the flags they had left. Lauren did so, and left her favorite photo of Bill (with Audrey) at the grave along with the rose. Chances are visitors will pause a little longer at it for the rest of the day before the Cemetery staff discards (or stores) it. Then, we had time to wander at the cemetery. As we have at all the cemeteries we’ve visited, Lauren and I walked, talked. Observed. We noted the neat rows, quietly debated the merits of how we mark the graves (as opposed to how other countries do so), noted the grave of General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the graves of unknowns, the grave of the Medal of Honor winner from Bill’s regiment buried only one row away. Other students and teachers used the time similarly, and it was neat to see other red-jacketed pairs moving amidst the memorials.

This is how Lauren left Bill's grave, with a rose and our favorite photo we have of him. 

These eulogies were the reason why we came. Lauren came to honor Bill, as I did. I also came to see her honor Bill; there is a particular joy out of seeing a student rise to an occasion such as this. I didn’t realize, though, that I was also there to see fourteen other students who had been strangers until this month, rise to their occasions. It was three hours of wonder, wonder at what these students could accomplish and wonder at the various roles these fifteen heroes played in our effort to defeat evil more than seventy years ago.

It was the most meaningful day I’ve spent with students that I can remember. 


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