There were 9,387 soldiers who died while serving their country as part of the D-Day landings and operations in Normandy. Buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, they are interred close to the beaches where their companies landed before eventually being felled by enemy fire.
Now as representatives of Coventry High School, junior Amanda Hoskins and her Advanced Placement History teacher, Lisa Johansen, have an important task ahead of them.
Among thousands of applications nationwide, they were selected to be one of only 15 student/teacher teams for a National History Day project called Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom, sponsored by the Albert H. Small Student/Teacher Institute from June 18-28. Hoskins had to write an essay while Johansen also had to apply to become involved before choosing her junior student as part of this special team.
Even as school winds down, this independent project has already begun. They have already begun to learn and compile information on two Rhode Island soldiers who were awarded Purple Hearts for their brave actions in Normandy. “We are researching the lives of Private Michael Macera of Johnston and Sgt. Henry S. Golas, of Lincoln,” Hoskins explained.
“Sixty-seven years ago today (June 6, 1944), American forces landed in Normandy,” Hoskins also noted on the day this elite student/teacher team was being interviewed.
“We will stay at the University of Maryland and then go to George Washington University in Washington, D.C.,” Johansen said.
Each team will study D-Day with other students and teachers, attend lectures by leading WWII historians and visit and study World War II monuments before they travel to Normandy, France, on an all-expenses paid trip to honor the soldiers they studied.
“Sergeant Golas belonged to the 2nd Ranger Battalion,” said Hoskins. “He became part of a special outfit on what they called the most dangerous mission on D-Day. It was completely all-volunteer. So he knew it was dangerous and carried a very, very high risk and that tells us a lot about Golas, that he was willing to know that his life was at stake. After he landed in Normandy, he died immediately while trying to climb the cliffs.”
But Golas remains sort of a mystery man. “He was not married, had no children and we can not find an obituary of him,” Hoskins says. “He is listed as being from Alpena (sic) in Lincoln, Rhode Island and we know he used to live in Massachusetts. We also know he was in the National Guard before he enlisted.”
They are learning even more about Private Macera. “He was part of the 41st Infantry Battalion, 2nd Armor Division,” Hoskins said. “He came in on June 9, after he fought in North Africa and Sicily. He was part of the infantry attached to the Armor Division who walked in front of the tanks. He later died in September of 1944 after securing a bridge and fighting his way through France. He was also awarded the Bronze Star.”
Macera is also linked to one of the most important military figures of WWII. “We discovered the 2nd Armor Division was trained by General George Patton,” added Johansen.
“We have already talked to a niece of Macera,” noted Hoskins “She showed us a letter sent to the family informing them of his death. Other letters from his friends had different accounts of how we died. “We know that he was shot in the neck, but we want to find out the exact truth about how he died.”
“This is an independent project,” said Johansen, who has a Master’s Degree from Providence College. “All the juniors learned about WWII in their history classes. I became seriously interested about WWII after taking a class by Dr. Grayson at PC. When I found out about the project and the opportunity was available, I immediately applied for it.”
“We are already chatting and blogging with other students, scholars and teachers,” Hoskins said. “We will keep corresponding with them and continue our research once we get to Washington. I spent hours on the weekend trying to look up more on these men.”
“We have studied and read about this from all perspectives already,” said Johansen, noting this includes the sides of Allied soldiers, Third Reich (German), historian viewpoint, the deception campaign and even citizens who lived there. “We have watched movies like “The Longest Day’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’. “We have read books such as Normandy: 1944 by John Keegan; The Normandy Diary of Marie Louise Osmont, The Bedford Boys…, Operation Fortitude and Band of Brothers…”
The trip will culminate in Normandy at the memorial as a day of remembrance. Each of the 15 students will lay a wreath at the American Cemetery. “We are going to let his (Macera’s) family know we were at his gravesite,” Hoskins explained.
But the project is far from over.
“Macera was one of 11 children and three of his sisters, each in their 90s, are still alive,” Hoskins said. “During the summer we hope to make an official videotaped interview with one of his sisters and put it on a fallen soldier website as part of the National History Archive,” Johansen adds.
”It is amazing to know we are going to be there, to walk on the beaches and to be at the cliffs on the American and German sides where they were shooting at each other,” Hoskins said of an experience that already gives her “a chill.”
Johansen admits she “got teared up” as she read the first details of both men’s bravery and deaths.
But it won’t be surprising if Johansen will also pause and think of some history students of hers who told her their grandfathers once fought at Normandy, or that this student-teacher team will reflect on all soldiers who fought or died on behalf of their country in Normandy, and elsewhere.