When Sarah Rogers found out a panel of World War II veterans would be speaking at the University of North Florida on Monday, she knew her sons needed to be in the audience.

 

The timing was perfect because their home-school curriculum just finished covering the conflict. But she said even her oldest, 8-year-old Beckett Rogers, felt like the lessons were ancient history.

The 10 men on Monday’s panel were all very-much alive, and Beckett said that made the war come to life for him.

“It was amazing for me, it’s much clearer now,” Beckett said of his new-found knowledge of World War II.

The veterans told stories of escape when they were prisoners of war. They talked about joining the military the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They told the audience of all ages about the Normandy Invasion on Omaha Beach and the unlucky ones who died in the sand.

The experiences were their own, seen through their own eyes.

“The stench stayed around for months,” said John Francis Frank, a Navy veteran who took part in the Normandy Invasion. He explained the beach was covered in land mines, so the bodies remained where they were until it was safe to give them proper burials.

Frank was 19 years old at the time, and he brought a German helmet with him to the discussion at UNF. The helmet still has a hole in the top where a bullet took the life of the German who was wearing it. Frank was the one who first came across the dead German soldier.

“Helmets are good, but not if you take a direct hit,” Frank told the audience.

Beckett listened closely as Mike Spencer flipped through the pages of his new book about being a P-47 pilot. The boy thought it was funny when Spencer explained how difficult it was to go to the bathroom while flying the plane.

Beckett learned about dog tags and compared them to a driver’s license full of personal information. He and his brothers weren’t the only ones happy to breathe life into the pages of their history books.

“It was really interesting because they had all been through these really hard times, but they were able to get through it and remember the moments that really kept them going,” Cassidy Connell said after the discussion. The 20-year-old UNF student’s great grandfather fought in the war and she got the chance to ask if any of the veterans came across his unit.

Samantha Feaster, 18, was happy her biology class was canceled Monday so she could attend the discussion with a clear conscience. But she said she planned on skipping class if she had to when she heard there would be World War II veterans on campus.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Feaster said. “I go to bio three times a week.”

Two other UNF students were especially thrilled to shake hands with World War II veterans. Jack Spitler, 19, and Matt Linde, 20, volunteer at the Military Museum of North Florida and brought items from the museum to show to anyone who was interested.

Spitler said it was the best day he’s ever had on campus and a day he’ll never forget. He said in 50 years he’ll be able to look back on the time he shook hands with a World War II veteran the same way his relatives used to talk about meeting Civil War veterans.

That’s something he will cherish forever.

Joe Daraskevich: (904) 359-4308