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A Lesson in History

Rocky Run students learn about World War II first-hand.

On March 4, 1943, Ray Christman Jr., 19, entered the U.S. Army. By November 1944, he was a rifleman, fighting in Germany during World War II. In December, he became a POW, but was freed in April 1945.

He's now 79 and lives in Nazareth, Pa. His daughter-in-law, Lynn Christman, teaches chorus at Rocky Run Middle School and, shortly before the school year ended, he came here and shared his wartime experiences with students in teacher Jamie Sawatzky's seventh-grade, U.S. history classes.

Christman was one of several World War II veterans and civilians visiting the school to speak directly with the children. Guests included former soldiers, sailors and airmen, plus people such as a Belgian civilian and a wartime airline mechanic.

THE PROJECT CULMINATED 125 students' six-week study of World War II and allowed them to go beyond their textbooks and do their own research by questioning people involved in the events, firsthand. They interviewed people from different World War II battles, time frames and geographic areas to glean a more complete picture of that period.

Students also wrote research papers, created visual displays and gave oral presentations to their classmates. Calling Sawatzky a "phenomenal teacher," Rocky Run Principal Danny Meier said, "He put his heart and soul into this [project]." Added Christman: "I think it's wonderful — the teacher is doing an excellent job. Students get more detail, this way, that you don't get from just reading a book."

The students interviewing Christman were Carly Aull and Devin Hernandez, both 13, and Alisha Sharma, Dustin Moore and Marina Arnold, all 12. "I think this is a very important opportunity because we're the last generation that'll get to talk to these veterans," said Moore. "World War II probably [prevented] some smaller wars because those in it — and those who saw it — realized it wasn't a game."

Below are highlights from their interview with Christman:

Q: "When and how did you hear about conflicts in Europe?"

A: "We heard about it in high school, but the U.S. didn't do anything about it until Pearl Harbor."

Q: "How did you feel about being drafted?"

A: "At our age, we all wanted to get into the service. I tried to join the Marines, but they said I had to be 5 foot 7; for the Navy, you had to be 5 foot 2. I was 5 foot 1 1/2, so I said, 'The heck with it — you'll have to draft me,' and I was drafted by the Army."

Q: "How did training differ from combat?"

A: "We were taught to clean our weapons but, in combat, you don't have time. You shoot the bullets out — that's how you clean your rifle. And in training, you hike 10 miles; in battle, you only walk a mile or two to the front."

Q: "WHEN DID YOU land in europe?"

A: "It was after D-Day. I joined the 28th Division right after it had taken Paris."

Q: "What was the first act of war you participated in?"

A: "It was in Luxembourg. We were supposed to attack the Germans, the next morning, and I couldn't wait. [When we did], the fire was so intense, we only got about 30 yards."

Q: "Did military leaders brief you on what was going on?"

A: "When you're up front, you know the least. You don't have any idea what the rest of the Army is doing."

Q: "What did you think about most often?"

A: "I thought most about the fellows who'd lost their lives over there — they were the real heroes."

Q: "What did you do when not in battle?"

A: "We sat around and prepared for another [one]. There wasn't much time between battles."

Q: "What motivated you to continue and not give up?"

A: "Everyone wanted to get the war over with, as soon as possible."

Q: "Were you ever wounded in battle?"

A: "No, I never got a scratch."

Q: "What were living conditions like?"

A: "We stayed outdoors; for four weeks, we never washed or shaved. You just did whatever you could to survive — you jumped into gullies and covered yourself."

Q: "What was your reaction to the Battle of the Bulge?"

A: "I was there at the beginning. I went on patrol behind the lines and brought back a prisoner."

Q: "What did you grab to take to the battlefield?"

A: "A canteen of water and K rations [food], but we mostly lived on D rations — a six-stick candy bar with enough nutrition to take care of you for a day."

Q: "HOW WAS THE BATTLE progressing while the Germans started taking POWs?"

A: "We were holed up for three days and slowed 'em down. We took some of the aggressiveness away from them before the battle."

Q: "How did you become a POW?"

A: "We were walking to Bastogne to hold 'em off. Someone came by in a half-track and asked where I was going. I said Bastogne, and he said, 'So am I — get in.' Eventually, 20 of us were in the half-track. The Germans shot at it and killed the driver and assistant driver. The next shell blew it up. Four of us dived into a ditch.

"I saw woods and was ready to take off into them and escape. But the Germans lit them up with phosphorus and said anyone trying to escape would be killed — and so would the wounded. So I gave up and helped the wounded get up and get help. [Later], when I got out of the service, I saw a fella I'd helped put on a motorcycle."

Q: "How were you treated as a POW?"

A: "The Germans took everything we had. We walked 10 miles and then they put us on railroad cars and took us to prison camps. There were English, Russian, Canadian and American prisoners in the same camp. There was no brutality, [but] we worked seven days a week, all day long, and had very little food."

Q: "What did you think about being a POW?"

A: "At first, I felt guilty — why did I give up, instead of getting killed? But as things went along, I realized I'd done that to help the wounded."

Q: "How did you feel when the Soviets rescued you?"

A: "I had pneumonia and was in the hospital. The night before, the Germans heard they were coming and they took off. Russian cossacks on horseback came and freed us."

Q: "WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE to say to today's young people?"

A: "I think you should show your patriotism to your country. You should be grateful that you live [here] and should be willing to sacrifice for your country."

Christman showed the students his rifleman and combat-infantry badges, war ribbons with battle stars, 28th Division insignia, dogtags — and the Bronze Star he received for his actions in the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Hurgten Forest, north of Luxembourg, in November 1944.

The Battle of the Bulge was fought in Luxembourg and, last year, Christman and his son went there and visited Gen. Patton's grave. At that time, the Luxembourg citizens presented Christman with the Luxembourg Medal and planted a tree outside Bastogne in his honor.

Answering one, last question from the Rocky Run students about how he felt about serving in the war, Christman said, "I'm very honored that I had the chance to serve my country, and I'd do it all over again."