Va. elementary school students get remarkable VE Day history lesson from WWII veteran
SPRINGFIELD, Va. (WJLA) - Friday, May 8th is VE Day, a watershed moment in American history. 70 years ago on this day Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally thereby ending the war in Europe.
Fairfax County teacher Karen Howl took her students on a remarkable ride back to that time with the help a World War II veteran, so a new generation could better understand history.
Howl works in the German immersion program at Orange Hunt Elementary school in Springfield, Virginia.
"We have the only German immersion program in the District, Maryland and Virginia, " says principal Jason Pensler.
Pensler will tell you a recent lesson, months in the making, brought language and history together in ways no one imagined. Pensler says, "It truly is a remarkable story. I just can't believe we had the opportunity to be a part of it."
Howl says, "My mother was the public affairs officer for the kaserne in my town of Ulm, Germany for 15 years." Her mother grew up in Ulm, a city considered a Nazi stronghold during the war. Allied bombing raids destroyed 80 percent of the city, killed more than 1000 people and left 25,000 homeless.
American soldiers with the 324th Infantry Regiment of the 44th Infantry Division liberated Ulm in April of 1945 ushering in an era of uncertainty and eventually democracy.
A few months ago Howl was invited to participate in festivities celebrating Ulm's 70 years of freedom. She went on a nationwide to see if any of those brave soldiers from the 324th were still alive. Howl says, "There were 3 that marched into my hometown. Two of them were in the hospital at that very moment. There was only one individual that is here today, that was there then, that would remember and might be willing to come."
She found that veteran, Myron Roker, living in Glenwood, Iowa. The once young, bespectacled private, now 91 years old, still fits into his uniform. Roker came home from World War 2 with a purple heart, a bronze star for bravery and a heavy heart for what the war did to Ulm. Roker says, "It was a mixed feeling, joy that the war was about over. But I had sadness in my heart because of the people that might have been in those buildings and did not evacuate and lost their lives."
Howl arranged for Roker and his wife to fly to Ulm in April so all could partake in the 70th anniversary. Roker was embraced by Germans at every turn and was interviewed by multiple media outlets.
Howl also figured out a way to make this experience a cross-cultural and cross-generational learning experience for her students. The students wrote questions to elderly residents now living in Ulm who were children during the horrors of the war.
Student Lauren Dent asked, "Have you ever been in bunkers when a bomb came?"
Student Reed Dexter asked, "How did you feel when the sirens came and those bombs were dropping?"
Student Charles Heinbaugh said, "Every night you go to bed wondering are you actually going to wake up the next morning. What is going to happen to me? Because you never know."
Not only did Howl deliver those questions, she videotaped for us the most emotional answers.
Student Andrew Poe asked, "What was going through your mind and what were you thinking when you saw an American soldier?"
Gerhard Voehringer responded, "We were very surprised first as they came and how they came. It was very new to us to see so many vehicles and tanks, hundreds of them." Voehringer is Karen Howl's uncle. She says he lived in fear after being told the Americans would shoot everyone when they arrived.
Howl says, "And he remembers the first soldiers coming up to these children patting them on the shoulder saying don't worry, don't worry. Don't shoot at us but don't worry. It's over."
Voehringer said, "Don't worry, don't worry. They repeated that at least 5 or 6 times. My mom said 'what do they want here? Oh here come the Americans. You go out because you can speak english' and they kept saying 'don't worry'."
Student Riley Sturtevant said, "It's crazy to think that they'd actually answer the questions because of what they went though. Wow! They are actually answering my questions."
Howl and Roker, two newfound friends, hatched another plan during their trip across the Atlantic. Roker was touched by the student's questions. Those students also wrote thank you notes to Roker for his military service. He wanted to return the favor by visiting Orange Hunt Elementary unannounced before heading home to Iowa.
Principal Pensler says,"They have no idea this is happening. They are truly going to be flabbergasted."
When Roker walked into Howl classroom the students gasped at first then erupted in applause.
Howl said, "We did not go to Iowa because when he read your letters and saw your questions even on the plane to Germany he said can we go to Washington before we go home? Because I want to talk to those children who wrote those letters."
Roker then went room to room answering questions, recounting bygone stories with the children who shared in his latest journey. "I try to impress upon them that freedom is not free. That there's a cost of many lives, "says Roker.
Roker is the last man alive from his squadron. He still insists upon walking humbly in the footsteps of comrades who didn't make it home. "The ones that we lost those are the real heroes. I'm no hero, "says Roker.
Above all he's grateful he can be to this younger generation a witness to time.