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'The Greatest Generation'

Students get to meet with World War II veterans.

Col. Melvin Rosen, now 87, was serving with his men in World War II in the Philippines on April 8, 1942, when his battalion commander told him to destroy all of his guns and equipment and be ready to surrender to the Japanese.

TWO DAYS later and Rosen and his men began a 65-mile march that would kill thousands of American soldiers. They started at a place called Bataan in the Philippines.

"We held out on Bataan until ammunition ran out, food ran out, and people ran out," said Rosen. Many of his men began the march malnourished and sick.

"If you didn't make it you didn't make it," said the Falls Church resident.

He and 40 other members of "the Greatest Generation" shared their war stories on June 9 to some 200 Rocky Run Middle School seventh-graders. The all-day event allowed students to meet in small groups with World War II vets and survivors and to ask them questions about their service and their lives.

After more than three years as a POW, Rosen was liberated in Korea by the 7th Division. When a student asked what gave him the will to keep on going, he answered: "I don't know if I can answer that question. But I know why you came back ... Most of it was the self-discipline you learned at West Point, 5 percent was optimism, and 5 percent was just pure luck."

In a smaller room off the main hallway, students listened to two men talk about a segregated military and their flying experiences.

Elmer Jones of Arlington was a Colonel with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and sees the 99th fighter squadron as an "early Civil Rights action."

"This proved that the biases and generalizations were wrong. They assumed we all liked music and dancing but did not work much. They thought we didn't have the moral fiber to work and be leaders," said Jones.

BUT THE integration of the Air Force in 1949 was a vindication for Jones, who believes that the Tuskegee Airmen were the main argument against a segregated military.

"We proved that given the time and the training we could contribute just as much as anyone else," said Jones.

Col. Charles McGee of Bethesda, also a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, holds the record for the most combat missions flown over a three-war period from World War II to Korea to Vietnam.

McGee told the students about the importance of education, and how that allowed him a different opportunity when the war broke out.

"Having the education became important when the opportunity for aviation came up. It allowed me to take my love of flying and become a pilot," said McGee.

Another soldier remembered how joy and triumph can quickly fade away.

Charles Chapman of Woodbridge was a sergeant in the artillery of the 69th Infantry when his division became one of the first to meet with the Russian army at the Elbe River.

Chapman recalled a lot of celebrating during the first few meetings, but also how the post-war relationship fell apart.

"There was a lot of patting each other on the back, drinking vodka — it was a big deal then. But after they divided Germany into four parts, that changed. There was a lot of confusion and mistrust," said Chapman.

Rocky Run student Chris Proppe, 13, says he might not get another chance to meet these people.

"Knowing that these people won't be around much longer ... It's a great experience to share with other people," said Proppe. "It kind of lets you know what it was really like out there because textbooks can only tell you so much."

DAVID BERTOGLIO, a 13-year-old-student at Rocky Run, has gained a new respect for what people had to endure during the war. He cited the training of the Tuskegee Airmen and the Iwo Jima landing.

"It's really interesting meeting people who fought and lived through this time," said Bertoglio. "We can't really imagine what it was like back then fighting this war."

Donna Garrity, a history teacher who helped organize the event, can't agree more.

"I just think it's a wonderful opportunity for the students to relive history and to be told firsthand what went on in World War II," said Garrity. "I think they are at a good age to understand what went on and to appreciate what these people did for us."

The students prepared for the event by researching individual people and preparing questions.

Jamie Sawatzky, a history teacher at Rocky Run, came up with the idea two years ago. He began with three veterans in front of his class.

"This is something that allows the textbook to come alive in a way that holds their interest. It shows that history is a collection of everybody's stories and experiences. When you put 40 people's experiences and memories [together] you get a good idea of what happened," said Sawatzky.

He and Garrity also worked with Jeanne Costello, and the three spent more than 100 hours organizing the event. It was all worth it.

"It's one of those things where you imagine what you want to have happen — and it did," said Sawatzky. "In a way it's a dream of mine to pull this together. I tell my students that you're the last generation to interview the greatest generation," said Sawatsky.

With the school day almost over, students had a chance to interview one last person before they piled into buses and cars for the ride home.

Ensign Emmet Reagan of Reston served as a pilot in the Navy during the war and spent most of his time giving students advice about how to succeed in business.

When one student asked him whether he would fight the war over again if he had to, he became serious for a moment.

"Yes. If the situation warranted it we should all go. If someone is hammering at you, you got to react. I regret the war happened, but I have no regrets about serving my country," said Reagan.