CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A student-teacher team from Nitro High School recently did their part to ensure the memory of a West Virginia soldier killed during World War II will not be forgotten.
Kizmet Chandler, an AP Government, Civics and United States Studies teacher at Nitro, partnered with senior Emily Rinick to attend the Albert H. Small Normandy Institute, where they brought to life the story of a soldier from West Virginia buried in Normandy.
Chandler, the 2018 Gilder Lehrman West Virginia Teacher of the Year, and Rinick researched the life of Mitchell Woods Bacon, who was killed during D-Day and buried in the American Cemetery at Normandy.
"The AHSNI is an experience of a lifetime," Chandler said. "To be able to select a soldier from West Virginia that is buried at Normandy, and to bring him to life, as well as be able to further our knowledge about the D-Day campaign of 1944 and the sacrifices made by young Americans to help defeat tyranny, was just a few of the reasons to participate in this Institute."
Chandler and Rinick were one of 15 student-teacher teams selected for the experience.
The pair began their extensive research about Bacon in January through the State Archives, Ancestry.com and the National Archives, along with Bacon's Army Air Corp file from St. Louis. They also tried to reach out to Bacon's family, but were unsuccessful.
"This research was fascinating, as well as frustrating, because at times we would uncover a little piece of information only to hit another dead end in learning about him," Chandler said. "From our research, he appears to be quiet and reserved possibly due to his childhood experiences."
In their research, they found that Bacon did not lead an easy childhood; his mother died when he was 4-years-old and his father abandoned him and his brother when Bacon was 6.
While his childhood was not easy, he would go on to graduate from Charleston High School in 1928 and later earn a law degree from the University of Virginia. He signed up to be drafted, but grew tired of waiting and, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Corps, which later became the Air Force, Chandler said.
Bacon was assigned to the 314 Troop Carrier Group and flew missions as a radio operator in Sicily and North Africa prior to D-Day. From Sicily, his unit was transferred to England to begin training for the D-Day invasion.
Bacon and his crew flew two missions which were part of Operation Neptune. Their first mission was on D-Day, where they dropped paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne.
On D-Day plus 1, their second mission, they were on a resupply flight when their aircraft was hit by German flak just off the coast of Utah Beach.
Eyewitness accounts from the mission report read by Chandler and Rinick said the crew was able to drop all of their supplies while the plane was on fire and plummeting from the sky.
"They could have bailed out, but they stayed on board the aircraft to complete the mission and ensure the much-needed supplies were released over the drop zone," Chandler said. "The crash site, which we were able to see on this visit using coordinates from the mission report, was in Ste Mere Eglise, which is now National Route 13 in France."
Before heading to Normandy, Chandler and Rinick spent six days in Washington, D.C., on the campus of George Washington University, where each student presented an action briefing report on different locations throughout Normandy that were vital to the D-Day campaign.
"Some examples of the briefing reports were Pegasus Bridge, the German Atlantic Wall and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Mulberry at Gold Beach, Pointe du Hoc and the D-Day campaign at Omaha Beach," Chandler said.
While in Normandy, Chandler said they were able to stand inside bomb craters and German bunkers, walk along the path their chosen soldiers walked on D-Day, and stand on the beach and remember the sacrifices made that day.
"The most memorable experience I had was when we were in the Normandy American Cemetery honoring our soldiers with eulogies at their graveside," Rinick said. "It was such an amazing process to be a part of. Seeing my fellow students give their soldiers possibly the first eulogy they've ever been given was truly an awe-inspiring experience. It's something I will never forget."
Rinick also said that after the eulogies were given, her professor gave the students there the French and American flags that flew over the graves of each of their soldiers so they could keep a personal memorial for them.
"It's said that people die two deaths, one when they take their last breath, and another when everyone forgets their name," Rinick said. "In doing this, we will never forget their names."
The trip ended with a 48-hour stay in Paris, where the student-teacher teams learned about the French resistance and the occupation and liberation of France while taking in the sites of Paris.
"It is an honor to be the first student-teacher team to be selected to represent our state," Chandler said. "We hope that we were great ambassadors of our state during our trip and look forward to continue teaching about WWII and the D-Day campaign, along with our solider over the next couple of months."
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.