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Tributes to servicemen killed in WWII hit home

Ashlee Wilkerson looked up to the ceiling and dabbed her eyes, wiping away tears shed for John Baertschi, a man she never met.

Later, with Wilkerson seated among fellow students in the Scott High School auditorium, Baertschi's son, flowers in hand, thanked her for the kind words she'd said about his father, a man he never met.

"I couldn't have thought of a better person to give a eulogy," he said.

The pair met only recently. Wilkerson, 17, a Rogers High School senior, reached out to the son about a month ago to ask about the father, whom she was researching for a class project about local men who died in World War II.

The elder Baertschi was a U.S. Navy Seabee, and had volunteered to clear caves on Iwo Jima when he was killed March 26, 1945. Knowing that his son was in the room as she told his story, Wilkerson was overcome with emotion.

"It made everything hit home," she said.

Dozens of Toledo students presented tributes Friday to local men who died during World War II. The students in Joe Boyle's honors World War II class were each tasked with researching an individual who died.

The class uses Toledo Public Schools distance learning labs, and students from across the city are enrolled. Students learned where the fallen had been born, about their lives before the war, what units they served in, honors they may have received, how they died, and where they are buried.

The project had several educational purposes. Boyle required students to use primary source research. In an age where youth often equate research with a Google search or visit to Wikipedia, trips to library archives to find newspaper clippings from the 1940s were often the first time students were tasked with finding such sources.

The presentations taught public speaking skills. The research helped them dive deep into World War II, as they learned about major battles in which their veterans fought, historical events they survived, or campaigns that took their lives.

But more than anything else, Boyle said, it forced them to take what is now an abstract concept, a war fought decades ago, and made it personal.

Some students found relatives. Others learned their soldier lived just streets away decades ago. Each discovered an individual man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, and found that the pilots and medics and sailors weren't much different from them.

"I tend to believe you can't learn anything until you make it personal," Boyle said.

Alize Harris used to pass by Cpl. Michael Boyle's home every day on the way to school. A gunner on a B-29 Superfortress, he was shot down in 1945 and never recovered.

Waite High School's Liliana Parga broke down at the end of her presentation. Her brother recently enlisted.

"It would be heartbreaking if my brother... ," she said, then began to cry.

Several relatives of the men honored Friday were in attendance, as were a group of active duty service members, most of whom were Rogers graduates.

Too often, we hear about the trouble with kids, about the ones that have fallen, Mr. Baertschi said.

"It was nice to see that there are the good kids that can relay the feelings of the families of heroes," he said.

Mary Walasinski researched her great-great-uncle, Pvt. Edmund Walasinski, a waist gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress who was shot down in 1944. She interviewed relatives, but also got to teach her grandfather about Mr. Walasinski.

"I feel so much closer to that side of my family," she said.

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