Teenagers from Omaha will get the thrill of their young lives this June — taking part in the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on a beach named Omaha.
Members of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps at Benson High are raising money, learning about the World War II invasion in France and interviewing D-Day veterans.
“Some of the stories the veterans told kind of scared me when they went into details about what happened,” said junior Will Combs. “But it was very inspirational to hear their side of what happened at Omaha Beach.”
The 28 cadets headed to Normandy will be able to stand in the bombed-out German gun emplacements on the cliff, look across the wide beach below and wonder how any of the Allied invaders made it alive off “Bloody Omaha.”
About 2,500 Americans and 1,900 allies died on D-Day, June 6, 1944. But by five days later, some 326,000 troops had made it ashore and the liberation of Europe had begun.
Anita Harkins-Baldwin, Benson's principal, visited Omaha Beach when studying in England. She is proud of the students for all their preparation but said it's hard to prepare for the trip's emotional impact.
“They just have to go and experience it,” she said, “and reflect on their emotions later.”
Benson JROTC instructors Michael DeBolt, a retired lieutenant colonel, and Dan Falcon, a retired first sergeant, said the unit was selected to represent Nebraska by the National D-Day 70 Years Committee.
The cadets will march in the D-Day parade on June 6, just ahead of veterans riding in vehicles. The students also will march in the nearby town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
The Benson JROTC's selection came last year, and DeBolt said of the cadets: “They're still smiling.”
They're also still working. Each must pay a third of the trip's estimated cost, or $1,236. Many have taken part-time jobs, such as one student who earned $750 by mowing lawns all summer.
The unit has collectively raised funds, too, such as by working concession stands at the College World Series.
A pancake feed will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday at Benson High, followed by an open house.
Other events include a “Sweetheart Spaghetti Dinner” and all-city choir performance at Benson High on Feb. 14, and another pancake feed from 7 a.m. to noon on Feb. 23 at the Benson VFW, 8901 Military Road. Plus, a cadet “march-a-thon” on March 28.
A couple of foundations have donated money, but others have turned down requests because their bylaws don't allow them to pay for travel.
“This is not just a vacation,” said instructor Falcon, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division. “This is basically a classroom on the road.”
The unit needs to raise about $20,000 more. Donations may be sent to the Omaha Schools Foundation, ATTN: Benson D-Day Trip, 3215 Cuming St., Omaha, NE 68131. Or online at www.omahaschoolsfoundation.org.
The eight adults accompanying the students, including DeBolt and Falcon, are paying all of their own expenses.
Among the cadets who will travel for the anniversary are twins Courtney and Liz Green, seniors who have received congressional nominations to military academies.
Both are extremely active in school — soccer, softball, swimming, band, National Honor Society and class offices. They will find out in February or March if they are accepted at academies. And they eagerly anticipate the commemoration at Omaha Beach.
“I'm really excited about this as a good learning opportunity,” said Courtney. “This is not a storybook and not just what you get in history books.”
Said Liz: “It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
After falling in earlier this week, the cadets heard an “at ease” and got to work planning research projects.
Some will compile World War II timelines. Others will write about the Holocaust. Still others will write about currency exchange rates, French food and the importance of etiquette and saying “bonjour” and other French words and phrases.
Cadet Ana Schneider said she didn't want to join JROTC as a freshman but her parents insisted.
“I've grown to really love it,” she said. So much so that after she graduates this spring and returns from France, she plans to enlist in the Army.
In an essay, she wrote that she is bursting with pride and “over the moon” about the D-Day trip and being able to “step out of the classroom and into history.”
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Her four years in JROTC, she said, have given her confidence in taking leadership roles and taught her much about giving back to the community.
The Benson unit's basement classroom is lined with trophies, and recently became the first JROTC unit in Omaha Public Schools history to be named an Honor Unit with Distinction for 20 straight years.
The Benson cadet corps has 136 members in all. The juniors and seniors making the D-Day trip also will visit Paris, where they will tour the Louvre and help celebrate the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Eiffel Tower.
Before departing for Europe, cadets will meet in May with Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans at the Strategic Air and Space Museum in Ashland, Neb.
Katie Glessman, a junior, already has been deeply affected by interviewing a Navy veteran of D-Day. She looks forward to a lifetime memory in Normandy.
“Hearing a veteran's experience made more of a connection to our going there,” she said. “Seeing the D-Day beaches and cemeteries will be emotional. But it will be amazing.”