Three students from North Shore Middle School took home first place in the junior group exhibit category of New York History Day for their project, “D-Day,” the day Allied Forces launched a beach invasion in Normandy, France, marking the beginning of the end of World War II. They will advance to compete at the National History Day contest in College Park, Md., next month.
Eight-graders Christian Holden, Nicholas La Rosa and Michael Granelli, all 14 and from Glen Head, said they were inspired to commemorate D-Day in their project to coincide with the 75th anniversary this June.
In the school, regional and state levels of the competition, their project consistently came out on top. Their efforts to expand the project’s context as they moved up the ranks helped them advance to the national level.
The project consists of a tri-board filled with historical photographs and personal anecdotes. At the base of the board is a diorama of one of the landing beaches, complete with miniature boats, army figurines and sand from a local beach. They also translated their findings into a report, which includes a lengthy bibliography of primary sources.
“We went to a few VFWs, and we found two World War II veterans,” Michael explained. “We even have an iMovie that features some memorabilia from the actual war.”
The iMovie intercuts interviews with local veterans over a speech delivered by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on the day of the invasion, which he called “the Great Crusade.” They interviewed Paul Stein, of Floral Park, who fought on the sands of Normandy that fateful day.
“He didn’t even know what he was doing until an hour before [the invasion],” Nicholas said.
They also spoke to post commander Phil Como, of Sea Cliff; his father and 95-year-old uncle both served in World War II. He invited the students to his home to show them mementos from the war: the diary his father kept during his service; uniforms they had worn during battle; the discharge letter his father received from the secretary of the Navy; and an ash tray he had fashioned from an old shell casing.
The boys interviewed Como’s uncle, who was a flight engineer and a gunner on a B-24 aircraft in the European theatre. He completed 50 missions with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, including the invasion of Normandy.
Como said he was surprised to hear the eighth-graders were doing a project on something that happened 75 years ago.
“Most of the World War II veterans are gone, and that time period has been relegated to the history books,” Como said. “When Americans go to France and visit those [war] cemeteries it’s a sobering experience, but it leaves them with a different feeling. They didn’t experience [the war], but they have some idea of what the cost was, and it gives them an appreciation that they didn’t have before.”
Each of the students said that appreciation was felt deeply as they worked on their project. “‘Saving Private Ryan’ I always watched, and to see it come to life now . . . changed my whole perspective about it,” Michael said.
“My dad used to tell me about D-Day [because] his grandfather would tell him, and he passed it on to me,” Christian said. “Having all that knowledge and doing this research and meeting people that were there is just mind-blowing.”
Seth Gordon, the district’s secondary director of social studies, said his students’ research for History Day has extended far beyond the classroom. “They’re not doing this for a grade anymore,” he said. “It’s an experience that I think will last with each of them, and as a powerful one.”
As the boys prepare their project for the national stage, they said the greatest reward was giving a voice to the servicemen who risked everything to protect the country they served. “We want to honor the soldiers that fought in the war, because some of them didn’t even have a chance to live a normal life,” Nicholas said.
“We don’t want people to forget,” Michael added.
The students will compete at the 2019 National History Day competition between June 9 and 13 at the University of Maryland in College Park.