WINDHAM - Bob Fellner, a history buff and a part-time history teacher at Windham High School, learned long ago that primary sources provide the best type of learning.
"If you get out and meet the people who made history you always get more than just from reading it in a book," Fellner said prior to last Thursday's much-anticipated presentation on World War II.
But rather than opening their books to a certain page, the students in Fellner's U.S. in the Modern World class turned their attention to the front of the room, where several World War II veterans sat ready and willing to relay their war experiences.
Though the events took place more than 65 years ago, students were blown away by the soldiers' stories, some of which were prompted by students' questions and some the veterans couldn't help but retell.
Harold Lewis, 87, a longtime Windham resident who now lives in Westbrook and served as a staff sergeant in the Air Force, mesmerized the couple-dozen students with his story of being shot down during his second B-24 mission over the Italian Alps. He recounted his tale of avoiding German capture for four months until Allied troops eventually captured the area where he was staying, about 40 miles southeast of Rome.
Robert Guitard, 84, a Portland resident who served as a colonel in the Army and wore his uniform and showed students his many medals, told students that he was training for the invasion of Japan in 1945 when President Harry Truman dropped the bomb.
"That saved my life. They told us a million of us wouldn't make it in the invasion," Guitard said. He spent the rest of his service in Europe repatriating German and Austrian prisoners of war.
"It took us a year to get them back to their homelands," Guitard said. "During that time we had a meeting with Pope Pius XII. I was almost close enough to touch him."
Phil Gouzie, 88, a longtime Westbrook resident who now lives in South Portland, served as a mortar machinist's mate on the U.S.S. Proteus submarine tender in the Navy. He praised Truman, saying his call to drop the bomb, "saved this poor little boy his life probably."
Gouzie went on to say his most memorable war moment was seeing a pennant reading "Homeward Bound" waving atop the Proteus, signifying the end of the war. He also remembered how boring life was on Midway Island, a 1-mile-in-diameter island in the middle of the Pacific where the only entertainment was watching gooney birds (albatrosses) taking flight.
"They need a runway to take off," Gouzie said. "They have to take off from here to like Roosevelt Trail and then they can get airborne. And when they come down they're even funnier because they can't run fast enough so when they land their feet won't go fast enough so they do somersaults and then they walk off. So that was our entertainment."
Longtime Windham resident Ralph Johnston, 90, a first class petty officer in the Navy, told students how he was a welder based in the Aleutian Islands, close to Russia and Japan, and how he helped to build a runway made of corrugated metal on the tundra.
Johnston also took the opportunity to warn students not to glorify the military or war, reminding students of former President Dwight Eisenhower's famous chide of the military-industrial complex.
"They are working to build the military to kill people. What we need to do is not go to war but find ways to care for one another to find a way to compromise so we can live together. We have to think about that today. The military has a great big budget, building more and more, which we don't need. I just want you to think about that," Johnston said, receiving a round of applause from the students.
Bob Akins, a Raymond resident and commander of the Windham VFW Post 10643 who enlisted the help of the four other veterans, told students he was too young to take part in the war - though he got his fair share of combat later in life serving as a U.S. Marine colonel leading platoons in Vietnam.
Akins instead shared his stateside experiences growing up in New London, Conn., which was a thriving Navy submarine base. He shared his memories of food rationing and going around the neighborhood collecting the aluminum foil inside packages of cigarettes and "turning it in to the local market for the war effort."
Akins also had several students hold up a rope with strings attached signifying the wars the United States has taken part in and the number of casualties suffered in those wars. Like Johnston, Akins warned students as well by paraphrasing a 1966 quote by TrumanL: "If man does not abolish war from this earth, for sure war will abolish man from this earth."
After the presentation, both the students and the veterans formed a receiving line of sorts shaking each other's hands as students left for their next class.
Josh Ryan, a senior, said, "I absolutely loved it. I've always had an interest in World War II my whole life. I've been studying it in my spare time. This was huge for me. I really enjoyed it. I've been down to the (World War II) memorial in Washington, D.C., and the (National) Holocaust Museum and I can tell you about World War II frontward and backward. But to finally get to meet some actual veterans, that means a lot to me," Ryan said.
Danielle Jordan, an 11th- grader, said, "It was very fascinating and interesting. I'm a complete history geek. I've been into war since forever and having my great grandfather being in World War I and my grandfather being in the Korean War, I've just been into it. I've never heard actual stories on World War II, so this was something I've been looking forward to for quite a while now."
During the presentation, Robert Guitard showed a Nazi helmet with a hole caused by shrapnel, which he passed around the room. Asked to comment on what it was like to hold a Nazi artifact, Jordan said, "It was pretty shocking. When I saw the swastika with the eagle on the side, I realized it was a German's helmet rather than an American's, but I was happy to see what the helmet looked like."
At the end of event, Gouzie said, "I think it was great, I think other schools should adopt this because there are a lot of us veterans that are willing to come and talk and I don't know why history teachers don't take advantage of it."
"It makes it so vivid to the students to see us," Guitard added, "They had very intelligent questions."
And Fellner, who retired from the Army in 1992 as a Ranger, enjoyed every minute, as well.
"I was amazed," he said. "Better than any textbook."