For 110 U.S. history students from Newbury Park High School, time went backward on the morning of May 1, 1991. Under a gentle tree-filtered sun at Camarillo's Leisure Village picnic area, the high school juniors learned about World War II from 48 men and women who had lived it.
For two hours the teen-agers experienced the personal side of history rarely found in textbooks. Through stories, they were transported to 1937 and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of International Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War--Ernest Hemingway's war. Some visited a World War II defense plant, learned about rationing and "painted-on-stockings," while others jitterbugged at a USO club in Hawaii.
Others suffered through winter in a forced labor camp behind German lines, or translated for the Allies at the Battle of the Bulge. Still others were in the South Pacific campaign or survived the Holocaust. Some were torpedoed by Italian submarines and fished out of the Atlantic. Others heard and smelled the strafing of their cockpits by German Messerschmitts.
History teacher John Uelmen said: "I arranged this activity seven years ago when students complained they couldn't find veterans to interview. When I see students later on, they remember this event as one of the best experiences of their high school career."
Groups of five or six students with questionnaires circulated among tables. For an essay project, each student was required to interview a senior who was in uniform during the war and someone who was involved on the home front.
Seventeen-year-old John Casey said he learned quite a bit. "It's an era I know very little about except for a few scattered stories my grandfather had told me."
Angeline Stephens, 16, said: "I don't always feel comfortable around older people. But their stories were captivating. I couldn't believe that they were telling us about things we had just read--like the London blitz."
Grant Sessions, a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corps, displayed weapons, photos and holes in his leather flight jacket where six bullets entered in a line down his arm. "Up in the plane during combat, you could see the holes and hear the metal tearing," Sessions said. "You could smell the gunpowder. And the impact of the shells would lift you off your seat."
Casey said he was impressed by the advice of Paul Ilovsky, a Hungarian who spent 36 months in a forced labor camp. Ilovsky urged students to get all the education they can, because they could never tell what might help them survive. In his case, it was barbering.
Elizabeth Ilovsky recalled: "We had only been married two to three months when they took him away. I was 18 and we were so in love." Elizabeth survived Auschwitz, and the couple was reunited in 1944.
Many seniors displayed memorabilia. And everyone appreciated Herb Schmidt's May 2, 1945, issue of the U.S. Armed Forces newspaper "Stars and Stripes" from the European theater of operations. It declared in three-inch headlines: "KAPUTT--HITLER DEAD."
Despite the nostalgic and exciting stories at this annual "World War II History Day," all the senior men and women present emphasized the horror of war. They reminded students that the celebratory mood often prevailing at such gatherings stems from relief and gratitude at victory. And most urged the students to seek and to support nonviolent means to settle future conflicts.
At the end of the day, Casey said the event had broadened the scale of the war for him. "The war wasn't just something that happened on foreign soil from this date to that date, with so many people killed," he said. "History is really people. And the war affected everyone alive, no matter where they were."
On Friday, 160 history students from Camarillo High School will also visit Leisure Village to meet with World War II veterans in the picnic area from 10 a.m.-noon. The same interview format will be used. Veterans and those who worked on the home front who wish to participate can call the Senior Speakers Bureau coordinator at (805) 987-3359.