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Veterans teach Niskayuna students about World War II

Veterans teach Niskayuna students about World War II

Learning from those who were there
Veterans teach Niskayuna students about World War II
WWII veteran William Rochelle meets with a student after a WWII Veteran Recognition Program in Niskayuna.
Photographer: Erica Miller

NISKAYUNA -- Bill Rochelle remembers Christmas Day, 1944.

He was in Germany. He was in World War II.

"We had been told we would not be flying on Christmas morning, so a lot of the guys did a little too much partying [the night before]," said Rochelle, a Glenville resident and former member of the Army Air Force's 463rd bomb squad during the war.

About 120 eighth-graders from Iroquois Middle School listened to Rochelle's story in the school auditorium on Monday. The students received an education through Rochelle and five other veterans from the 1940s -- who all told stories about their days in military uniforms.

Rochelle said the bomber group's Christmas plans were canceled when the brass scheduled a mission over Germany. The target was Brux, then a large producer of synthetic oil.

Rochelle said some of the guys on his team fortunately had not celebrated the holiday.

"It turned out to be the toughest mission we flew," Rochelle told the boys and girls. "We lost about nine of 28 airplanes and, as far as we know, the crews of those planes. It was just a rough day."

Part of rough day was the rough reception the bomber group received from German ground crews manning anti-aircraft guns, 88-mm cannons.


"We called them flak guns," Rochelle said. "I've never seen so much flak. I've seen a lot of flak, but never so much as there was that day. They used to say, it was so thick you could get out and walk on it. Don't try that."

The kids silently listened to Rochelle's stories and remembrances by Army infantryman George Williams; Navy veteran and landing craft tank skipper Charles Merriam; German soldier Bernhard Graf von Schwerin; Navy veteran Charlie Levezque and Army veteran Allan Atwell.

Dennis Frank, a social studies teacher at Iroquois, has organized the annual salute to veterans. The point, he said, is for the students to learn history.

"It's not a textbook," Frank said.

"They love coming here," Frank said of the veterans. "Five of the six are repeats. Some have been here a few years. They look forward to my phone call."

There were tales of adventure on the water from Navy veterans. Charles Merriam of Schenectady offered words of praise and advice.

"I congratulate your teachers," Merriam said. "A lot of kids your age have no idea who won the war. If we hadn't won the war, you might be speaking German or Japanese, so you ought to thank your teachers."

Merriam also suggested the kids seek out their own adventures -- through knowledge.

"I took one of my kids around the world at 15 and he still remembers where we went," Merriam said. "So 14 is a very good age. I recommend you ask your teachers, 'Teach me more.' You're going to really absorb all that stuff at 14. You don't know how much you can do at 14."

Clifton Park resident von Schwerin gave the students a different perspective on the war. He joined the German military in late 1944, trained in war-neutral Denmark and was sent to the front line just as the Allies were entering Germany.

Von Schwerin remembers a story from his days in Denmark about two young German soldiers shopping in a store. One found a bold tie and decided to buy it. The sign said $5.

"He pulled out $5 and the merchant said, 'No, no no. For you, it's $20.' He said, 'Why?' and the merchant said 'Well, you're German and we don't like the Germans.'"

The soldier gave the merchant $5 and left.

Von Schwerin added his friend's commanding officer heard about the personal discount and insisted the man return to the store, apologize, and make restitution or return the tie -- all with a sergeant looking over his shoulder.

Kids asked questions about why the men had decided to join the military. They wanted to know what it was like spending the holidays in the armed forces. And they loved the program.

"I thought it was so powerful," said Mathena Rush, 14. "There's not that many of them left. Our children will not be able to remember the incredible service, they're not going to experience it first-hand."

Rush brought one of her late grandfather's Purple Heart medals to the event.

"It was definitely heartwarming, after a while these guys aren't going to be here anymore," said Anjana Kurian, 13. "It was important for people our age to know all this."

"It's really easy to learn about the statistics and the facts about the war, but it's much more powerful to know the personal stories," said teen Anna Brown.

The veterans also enjoyed themselves. Colonie's Levezque, remembering the long skirts popular with the girls of his era, marveled at fashion choices favored by today's teens.

"I like being around young people," Levezque said after the session.

"I can tell the children what I experienced," said Niskayuna resident Williams, still a trim figure in his Army uniform.

"I think it's interesting the kids want to know about these things and keep the memory of what we did and why we did it alive," Rochelle said. "We could use some of that thinking today."

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]


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