Student, teacher deliver eulogy in France for forgotten WWII vet
By AMIE STEFFENEICHER | Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa | Published: July 20, 2016
NASHUA, Iowa (Tribune News Service) — With thousands of white stone crosses behind him, and one directly in front of him, Caleb Lines stood inside the Normandy American Cemetery in northern France last month, took out a sheet of paper, and began eulogizing a man he never met.
That man was Army Technician 5th Grade Ervin A. Westendorf, a native of Waverly who died at Normandy on July 31, 1944, when he was 32 years old.
Lines had only learned Westendorf’s name weeks earlier. But as Lines read a eulogy over Westendorf’s grave June 29 — a place and time where, 72 years ago, Westendorf would have been alive — it was clear Westendorf’s story impacted the Nashua-Plainfield junior’s life.
“Westendorf’s valiant service and willingness to risk his life for the greater good has enabled me to better understand the meaning of sacrifice,” Lines says in a video recording of his eulogy at the gravesite.
Lines and his high school social studies teacher Suzan Turner researched Westendorf as part of Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom, a project through the National History Day organization that sends 15 student-teacher pairs on a trip to France each June.
The 30 participants are chosen from more than 100 who apply across the United States.
The focus is on telling the stories of forgotten troops, called “Silent Heroes,” who died in the Battle of Normandy, the World War II battle that killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, in 1944.
Some, like Westendorf, were unmarried and had no children — making research challenging for Lines and Turner. The pair did local research as well as combing through the National Archives in St. Louis.
They talked to a woman who was the daughter of a farmer Westendorf worked for before the war. They found a high school yearbook photo. They chatted with a Wartburg College professor who did research on Westendorf.
They learned Westendorf was born in 1911, the sixth of 11 children. He was described as tall and extremely shy. He played football for Waverly High School, graduating in 1931.
Westendorf worked on a farm outside of Plainfield after high school, and then went to work as a milk tester at the Carnation plant in Waverly — a plant that held a contract to produce milk for soldiers, Lines learned.
That likely got Westendorf interested in signing up for war. He was inducted into the United States Army in August of 1942 at age 30.
Westendorf trained with the 531st anti-aircraft artillery battalion, and landed on Omaha Beach on June 17, 1944.
“As a part of Operation Cobra, they were able to assist the Allies in breaking through German defenses near St. Lo on July 31, 1944,” Lines said in his eulogy. “Although this victory was a vital step in winning the war, it cost the lives of nearly 1,800 American soldiers, as well as my Silent Hero.”
Westendorf was killed that night in a German air raid. Four others were injured in that particular bombing.
“Ervin A. Westendorf has enabled me to understand that a person can make a difference for the greater good of others, even if it is unrecognized,” Lines said.
Lines and Turner had to submit essays and letters of recommendation to be considered for this year’s trip. Turner personally selected Lines for the project.
“I knew I needed to select someone interested in World War II,” Turner said. “It’s not just a free trip — it’s almost like a graduate-level history class.”
History is a passion of Lines — he’s also one of the four Nashua-Plainfield high school students who went to Maryland for the National History Day finals project. He’s also interested in WWII because his own great-grandfather was a paratrooper at Normandy who lived.
“Grandma said he didn’t talk about it much,” Lines said. “She said it was really hard for him — people were dying all around him.”
Lines understands his great-grandfather’s sacrifice a little bit better now, thanks to another soldier’s story.
“A lot of people don’t understand or fully comprehend the amount of sacrifice these soldiers gave for our country,” Lines said. “These projects help people understand.”
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