Instead of simply writing about World War II, Guilderland High School ninth-grader Sarah Jones got to meet veterans who fought in the war’s battles.
Jones was one of 51 students — one from each state and the District of Columbia — who wrote award-winning essays for the National World War II Museum’s Salute to Freedom contest, which was held in conjunction with the annual National History Day Contest. They received an all-expenses-paid trip to New Orleans in January for the dedication of the new U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, a series of interactive exhibits about the men and women who served and the efforts of people on the homefront to prepare for the war.
Jones said it was an awesome experience for someone like herself who loves history.
“It was really cool to meet the World War II vets,” she said.
Students had to write two essays for the competition, on how their state was affected by World War II and how their participation in History Day has influenced their perception of the past and future. Jones’ first essay focused on how more than 31,000 troops from New York died during the war — more than any other state. For the second essay, she reflected on post-war relations, particularly the Yalta Conference that divided Germany into territories and led to the creation of the Berlin Wall.
Over the summer and into the fall, the winning students had to conduct more research about the wartime industry in their states. Jones focused on the American Locomotive Co., which produced tanks and locomotives in Schenectady.
The company produced M3 and M4 tanks and in 1942 won a contract to build the M7 “Priest” tank destroyer, which helped defeat the Germans during the battle of El Alamein that November in Egypt, according to Jones. No word had leaked about this new tank, and the Germans were caught unawares.
ALCO also produced locomotives to supply the Trans Iranian Railroad, according to Jones.
“That was to break the blockade on the Russians so they could get supplies up through the Middle East up to the USSR,” she said.
ALCO made about 6,000 tanks during World War II and 1,086 steam and 157 diesel locomotives, according to Jones’ research.
All of the students’ research was on display with photos on panels in the facility, which Jones said was a cool experience.
“My work was in a real museum,” she said.
Jones said it was an honor to participate in the dedication ceremony because each student got to walk hand in hand with a World War II veteran. She also got to meet briefly and have a photograph taken with former NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, who served as master of ceremonies.
Another one of the highlights of the trip was watching a documentary film, “Beyond All Boundaries,” which gave an overview about World War II. The movie was screened in a theater with moving seats, which helped mimic the feel of what the audience was seeing.
“When they had tanks rolling by on the screen, your chairs would rumble. It snowed on us at one point,” she said. “That was awesome. We saw it twice.”
Jones also took a tour of the historic PT-305, a boat that is undergoing restoration, tried on a German uniform and compared weapons such as German and American grenades. The German grenade could be thrown farther, but it had a serious drawback, according to Jones.
“It had a handle. You could catch it and throw it back,” she said.
She also got to sample some of the local cuisine.
Jones, who is considering studying history, said she enjoyed the experience.
“It was very fun,” she said. “It was such an honor.”