Donald Wells stood watch on the deck of the U.S.S. Barnett as the boat approached the beaches of Normandy, France, in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944.
“We got closer and closer to the shore, and all of a sudden flares lit up the horizon,” Wells told Rocky Run Middle School students Friday.
Exactly 70 years later, the World War II veteran shared his memories of D-Day as part of the Chantilly school’s 14th annual World War II Oral History Day.
The event allows seventh-grade students to touch the past as they interview eyewitnesses to World War II and other chapters in U.S. history. More than 100 guests came to the school, including Wells and several other participants in the Normandy invasion.
“You hear 70 years, it seems so far away,” seventh-grader Jessica Aujla said. “But today, it’s our history textbooks come to life.”
D-Day marked a turning point in World War II. More than than 150,000 troops from the United States and its allies landed on the beaches of Normandy, starting an invasion into Nazi-occupied France that helped lead to victory in the war.
Wells, a 91-year-old retired Navy lieutenant, served on the U.S.S. Barnett as the ship carried more than 1,500 troops across the English Channel for the battle. Wells helped send off the landing boats that took men to the sands of Utah Beach, and was on deck to receive the wounded and dead in the aftermath.
“It was tough, one of the scariest days I remember,” Wells told students. “But it’s something I look back on and I’m proud to have been a part of.”
World War II Oral History Day started in 2001, when Jamie Sawatzky, a U.S. history teacher, invited the grandfather of one of his students to speak to a class. The grandfather, a veteran, helped students connect to World War II in a unique way, Sawatzky said.
Inspired by the experience, Sawatzky decided to expand the idea into a full program, which has grown each year since. This year, it lasted a full day, and included more than 100 participants ranging from World War II veterans to Holocaust survivors to Civil Rights activists and more.
Though the event is nicknamed “The Latest Generation Meets the Greatest Generation,” it now incorporates eyewitnesses from other eras, including the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, Sawatzky said next year the school plans to recognize the expanded scope with a new name: Eyewitness to History Day.
Rocky Run’s 500 seventh graders split into groups of four or five students for the event, and throughout the day the groups rotate through different interviewees.
“We’ve made it larger, but also more intimate,” Sawatzky said. “You can’t really make eye contact in front of a whole class, so with the small groups we give everyone a chance for a one-on-one connection.”
This year marks Wells’ seventh time attending World War II Oral History Day. Harold Abt, an 89-year-old World War II veteran, has also been attending for seven years, and said he plans to keep coming back as long as he can.
“Both generations improve because of this,” Abt said. “Seeing these kids in action restores all your faith for the future.”
Sawatzky said the event serves as a bridge across generations.
“At first, the people coming in might not know what to expect from middle schoolers,” Sawatzky said. “But the kids really want to learn from them. That’s what makes this day so important.”