Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. flew to Normandy over the weekend to learn firsthand about the sacrifices that a group of Maryland men made on Omaha Beach.
He arrived in Annapolis on Monday with a germ of an idea for a statewide education initiative he could roll out this year: that every Maryland schoolchild learn the lessons of World War II.
"The initiative involves gathering interviews, documents, everything we can get our hands on" that offers a personal account of how Marylanders fought and died on D-Day, Ehrlich said during an interview at Colleville-sur-mer, where 9,000 Americans who perished during the Allied invasion are buried.
Ehrlich went to Normandy, his first visit, with a group of 12 veterans of the Army's 29th Infantry Division. The unit, which had a large contingent of conscripts from the Washington area, was one of four that landed there six decades ago in the first wave of the Allied invasion to liberate Europe.
"Visiting Normandy, getting to know these guys, learning firsthand about the importance of this day in the history of the world -- it's something that needs to be shared," Ehrlich said.
So moved was Ehrlich by the stories of suffering and sacrifice that he said it would be "tragic" if the lessons were lost over time. The governor said he planned to meet with State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick upon his return to discuss how to put together such a program.
Assistant State Superintendent Ronald A. Peiffer said the State Department of Education would be willing to work with the governor on his plan. "It's absolutely in line with the kinds of thinking that we've had here," he said.
Maryland requires that high school students pass a course in American history before they graduate, but often there is little time to focus on the kinds of individual war stories that D-Day veterans could tell.
"I don't know of anybody who has the freedom to devote as much time to World War II as perhaps [the governor] is talking about," said Nancy Austin, a teacher at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia.
Maryland lost 6,465 residents in World War II. Thousands more survived with stories they have told again and again since the war ended. Richard Owen of Silver Spring, for instance, parachuted into Normandy with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.
Owen said he remembers vividly standing at the door of his airplane, preparing to jump into a hailstorm of antiaircraft fire and wondering why he had volunteered for the mission.
"But the crew chief [on the plane] had a .45 and said, 'You're going to step out that door or I'll shoot you,' " Owen recalled. "So I looked out the door at the tracers and at the shells hitting the ground below, and I just stepped into it."
Owen fought through the narrow roads and high hedgerows of Normandy for four days. He said he remembers seeing the German soldier who was aiming a machine gun at him, and the moment he got hit in the head.
"My helmet rang like a bell. Then, things got real quiet. It got cool. Blood came over my face. I thought, 'This isn't so bad.' "
Owen's next memories are from a hospital bed in England. He recovered, returned to the States and had a career as an illustrator.
"The main thing is," Owen said, "I hope they don't stop teaching it in school. I just hope kids will still learn about it. It shouldn't be forgotten."
At Wilde Lake, Austin said she typically spends one to three weeks on the war with her students, covering a range of subjects that include fascism, the internment of Japanese Americans, the postwar atmosphere and the founding of the United Nations.
She said her Advanced Placement history classes begin the year studying the pre-Colonial era. By the time she gets to World War II, Austin said, she focuses on the reasons for the war and its effect on foreign relations and domestic politics.
Staff writer Ylan Q. Mui contributed to this report.