On November 13th, I was a guest at a fourth-grade class in a school in Oakland, Ca. I attended at the invitation of its teacher, Natalie Babcock, who learned from my beloved’s granddaughter, Athena, that I would be visiting her and her parents that weekend, which included Veterans Day.
It turns out that Ms. Babcock’s class had been studying the war in Europe,; the Germans, the Nazis and the swastika. All of which resulted in my showing up on that Monday morning to discuss my personal experiences as a WWII veteran.
I was delighted with the invitation. When I was presenting my weekly four-hour marathon , Wonderama, in NY on Ch, 5, the viewing audience was between five and fifteen years of age. My focus was always on the 9-12 subsection of that population.
By the tine a child is 9, he/she has figured out chronological and spatial concepts. They are beginning to be aware of other histories and other countries. They were now ready to invest and absorb huge amounts of information and begin sorting our a narrative. This continues until they are 12, at which point there seems to be a tendency to move from smart, to smart-ass.
So I was looking forward, after all these years away from such an assemblage, to find out if anything had changed in the decades since the 1960’s.
Here I am with the class, starting my visit—getting ready to listened to what they already had absorbed.
I had brought along my old Eisenhower Jacket, the uniform component we wore after we returned from service and were not at work. I explained the meaning of the four stripes on the left sleeve--Staff Sergeant— and the red keystone patch on the right shoulder identifying me as having been with the 28th infantry division.
Then I doffed the jacket and passed it along to the students for each of them to have a chance to try it on during my visit.
Here is the way some of them looked—and reacted.
As I listened to the students, I began to note that, although they did have glints of knowledge of WWII, I could at least contextualize these pieces somewhat. The first ting I explained was that WWII was different from what they know of our involvement in Afghanistan or against ISIS. In WWII, the entire country was at war. 15 million men were drafted into military service, removed from factories and offices and schools to undertake this world-wide war. Women, then, had to fill those spaces, and did—making aircraft and tanks, filling all those gaps left by the draft.
The other major gap I tried to fill was their impression that we were in the war due to the Nazis. Only one student finally mentioned Pearl Harbor. The fact that despite all the terrible deeds of the Nazis, their conquest of Poland and France and much of Europe, did not plunge us into that war--it was the Japanese attack on Dec. 7th 1941.
I also spoke of my time in a POW camp, which had been a concentration camp before they switched it to imprison GIs. We had the same physical setup—and diet—as the previous occupants.
I also narrated what I described as both the shortest tank battle, and the most poignant moment, of WWII.
Several days after my visit, I received 23 thank-you notes—one from each student. Here are some of them—including two who drew their versions of the tank battle story—with astonishing accuracy regarding the components.
I am grateful to Ms. Babcock and the school, not only for hosting me , but for their willingness to bring the grim realities of that terrible time onto the lives of their young students. Especially today, with a resurgence of neo-Nazi groups in Europe and here, making this generation aware of the consequences of that dangerous ideology is important.