As most Americans are celebrating freedom on Independence Day this week, some also will reflect on the wars Americans have fought and died in throughout history to defend that liberty.
For one Edmond World War II veteran, distant memories of his days in battle were reignited in June during a 10-day tour of several concentration camps and other Holocaust-related sites in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland.
Sixty-eight years after Hall Duncan was shot in his hand in battle while dragging a wounded soldier to safety, he returned to Europe to participate in an educational tour of the area. Accompanying him on the trip were three other World War II veterans, three survivors of concentration camps and 17 students from College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo. The tour was part of College of the Ozarks' Patriotic Education Travel Program, and all travel expenses were paid for by the college.
Duncan, 88, is a children's book author and illustrator. Before he retired, he spent 17 years as a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and served as a Methodist educational missionary in Africa and guest lecturer all over the world. During World War II, Duncan was an infantryman of the 101st Regiment, 26th Division of the Third Army, which liberated the French villages of Guebling and Bourgaltroff in 1944.
Each student on the tour was paired with either a veteran or a survivor for the trip. Duncan was paired with Ozarks college students Austin Plummer and Bonnie Andersen, both 20. For the students, the survivors and veterans offered an intimate perspective of World War II they likely never found in classroom situations.
“Hearing those firsthand stories was chilling, just sent chills all over my body,” Plummer said. He is preparing for his senior year at the college, majoring in public relations.
“We were able to catch a glimpse of history. What we learn in history books doesn't seem real. We were actually going to those places and seeing the visuals, so that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The tour began by taking Duncan and the rest through Dachau concentration camp in Germany and then across the Alps to the Eagle's Nest and Hitler's Documentation Center in Berchtesgaden, Germany, which details “The Final Solution,” a term that Hitler used for his plan to carry out the Holocaust against the Jewish people.
From there, the group crossed into Austria, to Linz, where Hitler spent much of his youth. Hitler planned to turn the city into a “Hauptstadt,” or a major city of the German Reich.
Next, the group visited the fortress of Mauthausen-Gusen, near towns of those names in Upper Austria, and its sub camps, among the worst concentration camps in the Third Reich.
The group saw the sights of Vienna, then crossed into the Czech Republic and Poland where they visited Krakow, the Polish administrative center for the Nazis. The final stop on this leg of the tour was the museum at the Krakow factory of Oskar Schindler, who saved hundreds of Jews from certain death by employing them.
Next on the tour was Auschwitz concentration camp near Krakow. Reich leader Heinrich Himmler, head of Hitler's Secret Service police, a military commander and leader in the Nazi Party, designed the camp as a place he dubbed as the “Final Solution to the Jewish question in Europe.”
One survivor on the tour, Gershon Ron, 83, of Fleishmanns, N.Y., had been held prisoner at Auschwitz and other camps as a teen. While the group was touring Auschwitz, Ron recounted disturbing memories from his time there.
“He got into such detail that my roommate (Chan Rogers, of Medway, Mass.) simply had to leave the room,” Duncan said. Details like this gave the group human faces to attach to what happened to millions of innocent people in concentration camps.
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We were able to catch a glimpse of history. What we learn in history books doesn't seem real.”