Sacrifice for freedom: Georgians in Normandy

In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

This week, JASON BUTLER, a teacher at DeKalb Early College Academy, and his student SYDNIE COBB discuss their experience studying D-Day and visiting Normandy, France, as part of the Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom® Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute, a program of National History Day. National History Day is a nonprofit educational organization that offers year-long academic programs for junior high and high school students to conduct original research on historical topics. 

By Jason Butler and Sydnie Cobb

Jason Butler

Butler: “I have a question about your Normandy Institute application,” the voice on the phone said. “Sure. What is it?” I asked, wondering if my careful proofreading had somehow been lacking. Then the bombshell: “Do you want to go?” she asked. My mind started racing. World War II… D-Day… Washington, D.C… France… Sydnie and I were in! This was December 15, 2016, and I had only a vague idea of what we were in for.

Cobb: Our Normandy experience began when we received a box from National History Day in January filled with WWII titles like The Bedford Boys, Band of Brothers, Normandy, and others. We perused the synopsis of each book, eager to discover the topics we’d cover in the upcoming months. Little did we know that the readings would expand far beyond the breadth of D-Day. Each book held a different viewpoint not just of D-Day but of war as a whole, including topics like life on the home front, how minorities were impacted by the war, and how specific American towns dealt with the war. This holistic approach allowed us to deviate from the standard D-Day narrative and learn about the war from a variety of perspectives.

Butler: Because we love to learn, I figured this would be a fun part of the experience for both Sydnie and me. Neither one of us was a military history buff, but these readings offered a chance to embark on an educational journey carefully curated by people who were.

Sydnie Cobb

Cobb: The readings helped us to view WWII on a larger scale, exploring how themes and trends affected certain groups of people. Our scope narrowed, however, when we were tasked with picking a “Silent Hero,” a soldier who died  in Normandy, and whose life I would research and commemorate.  Our search started on the American Burials and Memorial Commission (ABMC) website, with the first search generating the names of about 200 soldiers from Georgia. We knew that it was going to be a difficult process selecting only one soldier’s life to commemorate, but we knew for certain that we wanted to choose an African American soldier, since the heroism and history of African American soldiers tend to be discounted. After a quick search on ABMC, we were left with the names of two soldiers. I was instantly drawn to Sergeant Willie L. Collins because he received a college education, a feat that was especially impressive for an African American man living in the Jim Crow South.

Butler: We had a hunch that researching an African American soldier could be more challenging — for example, we would be less likely to find hometown newspaper articles about him than we would a white soldier — but we agreed that it was worth it. With support from the National History Day staff and our partners at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, Sydnie began unearthing all the details and context she could in order to do justice to the story of Sgt. Collins, who served in the 228th Company of the 490th Port Battalion.

Cobb: Our six months of studying WWII and researching the life of Sgt. Collins culminated in a June trip to Washington, D.C., and then on to France.

Butler: With the University of Maryland dorms as our home base, we spent six days attending lectures and participating in activities, discussions, and educational excursions around the D.C. area with the other student-teachers pairs who were part of the institute. Our understanding of the war quickly grew to include aspects we’d never thought much about: who gets to decide how and where fallen soldiers are buried? Should German war dead be afforded the same respect as their British or French counterparts?

Cobb: Outside of learning more about the war, we were also given the opportunity to learn more about our respective Silent Heroes through a trip to the National Archives. We spent the day sifting through documents and photos pertaining to Sgt. Collins, gaining a more wellrounded view of him. For the first time since beginning the research process, Professor Butler and I were able to actually see pictures of the 490th Port Battalion in action, which was really special to us.

Butler: During these weeks, Sydnie kept working on her eulogy, which she would deliver at the Normandy American Cemetery. As we headed off to France, this promised to be the most profound and memorable moment in a week full of them.

Cobb: We arrived in France jetlagged but excited to take on the next leg of our journey. During the first day, we explored the quaint town of Bayeux, where we would be staying for the next week. American and British flags hung around the town, surrounded by such signs as “We thank our liberators.” I was moved to know that even though WWII ended more than seven decades ago, the people of France were still grateful for the valiant efforts of Allied soldiers on D-Day and throughout the war. Over the next week, we places like Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, which Americans were tasked with overtaking on D-Day; Pointe du Hoc, where Allied soldiers scaled 100-foot cliffs to destroy German weapons; and Sainte Mere Eglise, a church made famous after an Allied paratrooper’s parachute was pierced by the church’s cross, and he was forced to play dead to escape German soldiers. Visiting these places brought the readings to life and allowed me to truly connect with the stories and events of D-Day, enabling me to better understand what Sgt. Collins and other soldiers endured.

Butler: With each day, we advanced further in our understanding of the different dimensions of WWII. Each excursion, each site, each lecture was gratifying and rewarding in its own way. Still, there was one part of the trip that never strayed far from our minds: the day Sydnie would pay tribute to Sgt. Collins.

Cobb: Writing the eulogy was the most challenging but also the most rewarding part of this experience. Trying to condense the life of someone I had never met into a page and a half was daunting at first.. I struggled to  figure out which parts of his life needed to be highlighted and which parts did not need as much emphasis. After months of exploring different paths to take the eulogy, I finally decided that I needed to discuss not only the accomplishments of Sgt. Collins but also how impactful his accomplishments were, given that he was a black man living in the Jim Crow era.

Butler: There may not exist any type of writing more profound and more challenging than a eulogy. To be honest, it would have been tough even for me — and I’m a historian! But I knew Sydnie was up to the task.

Cobb: Eulogizing Sgt. Collins at the Normandy American Cemetery was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I felt truly honored to shed light on the bravery and pioneering spirit that Sgt. Collins displayed throughout his life. Overall, as stated by another student on the trip, I am proud to say that my Silent Hero is silent no more.

Butler and Cobb: In life, it is special to have experiences like the Normandy Institute that exceed expectations. When we were notified that we were selected as one of the 15 student-teacher pairs, we had no idea what was in store. We did not expect the friendships, inspiration, enlightenment, and gratitude that this program would foster. This was truly the experience of a lifetime.

Sydnie Cobb is a 12th grader at DeKalb Early College Academy. She expects to graduate in May 2018 with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in Political Science from Georgia State University-Perimeter College.

Jason Butler is a history teacher at DeKalb Early College Academy, where he has taught since helping to launch the school in 2006.

Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

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