Bruce M. Whittier Middle School teacher Erica Swenson, center, is surrounded by some of her students in her Poland classroom recently. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

A few years ago, Bruce M. Whittier Middle School teacher Erica Swenson won a spot in the national Understanding Sacrifice program. through the program, she followed the life — and sacrifice — of a local World War II vet. She flew to Europe to trace the path of the northern invasion, talked with the soldier’s family and visited the Lewiston neighborhood where he once lived and worked.

It brought history alive not only for her, but also for her students.

The project had such an impact on her teaching that she’s agreed to do something like it again, through a different program. This time her focus will be on the Korean War. She’ll have two area soldiers to follow rather than one. And she won’t be traveling to Europe.

This time it’ll be Hawaii.

And it’ll be a trip of a lifetime in more ways than one.

Name: Erica Swenson

Age: 39

Family: Husband David P. Southwick, daughters Isla and Rosalind Southwick

Town: Minot

Job: Eighth-grade social studies and English language arts teacher

What got you interested in history? I come from a family of historians. Grandpa Swenson had an entire room of his house dedicated to all things Civil War: books, statues, artifacts and paintings. We called it “The Lincoln Room.” Meanwhile, my maternal grandfather told thrilling stories about how his airplane had been shot down over enemy territory during World War II. He described how he parachuted to the ground and then hid from German soldiers under the floorboards of a barn. Also, my mother has read every book in the library on the subject of Tudor England.

You did the Understanding Sacrifice program first. What was that like? Thrilling! I have had a lifelong fascination with World War II, and the Understanding Sacrifice program allowed for me to fully immerse myself in the topic. I read a ton, took part in online webinars, conducted research on a local World War II veteran and visited World War II sites and cemeteries in five different European countries. I feel so fortunate to have been involved with this program.

What was the best part? Visiting Omaha Beach had been a life-long goal of mine, but I honestly enjoyed the research part of the project as much as the travel. I chose a Lewiston native named Stanley Clark to study. He was a member of the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. He and other members of his regiment volunteered to drop down behind enemy lines in engine-less gliders made out of plywood and fabric. P.F.C. Clark died in the Netherlands on Oct. 9, 1944, when two German tanks launched a surprise attack on his section of the Allied line. Throughout my months of researching, I used the Sun Journal, family interviews, census forms, military records and the expertise of a Dutch historian to write a short online profile about P.F.C. Clark’s life and military service. I also spent time walking around his old neighborhood in Lewiston. After a certain point, I felt like I could almost see him headed down Union Street on his way to school.

What did your students learn that they wouldn’t have otherwise? I believe that it’s important to emphasize individual voices when studying history. Personal stories help us connect to history emotionally. They give us a chance to practice empathy and tolerance. P.F.C. Stanley Clark’s story gave my students a more local perspective of World War II events. It also taught them about how much some people and their families were asked to sacrifice for this conflict.

Why apply for Memorializing the Fallen when you don’t traditionally teach about the Korean War? This program is another exciting chance to connect with amazing educators from around the country and to grow as a historian. Also, it’s helping push my thinking about why we choose to focus on certain conflicts in American history, while we allow others less air time. The Korean War is known as the “Forgotten War” and yet 1,870,000 Americans fought in the war and over 36,000 Americans died during the event. One historian, William Stueck, described the war as a substitute for World War III. It was the only occasion during the Cold War when the U.S., Soviet Union, China and their allies were in regular direct military contact against each other. It’s fascinating.

What are you looking forward to most with this program? The research and, well, seeing a new state. Also, I have two small kids at home, so I’m excited to be able to eat an entire meal without being interrupted by someone’s milk spill or alternative meal request.

Plans for Hawaii? The other teachers and I are going to be busy. We’ll visit the Pacific Aviation Museum, Fort DeRussy U.S. Army Museum and Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. I’ll be involved in several work sessions, during which I will be learning more about the Korean War, editing my profile write-ups for two Korean War veterans and creating a lesson to use with my students and others at my local National Cemetery Administration cemetery (Togus National Cemetery). I will also be eulogizing a soldier, New Hampshire native Eugene Piela, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

But you’ll sit on the beach, too, right — I mean, it’s a free trip to Hawaii? I’m sure I will enjoy being in Hawaii, but my focus will be on the history of the area. And, although it’s not a Korean War site, I’m thrilled to finally have the chance to visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial before I leave.

Why is history important? You know those characters in soap operas who hit their heads and get amnesia? Well, if you don’t know your history, you may as well have amnesia or live in a vacuum. History helps you better understand what is happening in your world today and gives you the tools to be an informed decision-maker for the future. Plus, it’s fun.

P.S. If anyone can provide information on either of these two Korean War veterans, I would be grateful: Eugene Piela of Franklin, New Hampshire, and David Lee Knight of China, Maine.


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