Sixteen-year-old Dylan Davis, an 11th-grader at Hingham High School, says he likes the way history can help you understand the modern world. Now his passion for history will take him to Washington D.C. and land him on the beaches at Normandy.
Earlier this month, Davis and Christina O’Connor, his Advanced Placement US history teacher, were among 15 student-teacher teams selected for an all-expenses-paid experiential learning program staged annually by National History Day, a Maryland-based nonprofit.
Each of the teams will spend the next five months studying a World War II “Silent Hero” from their hometown or region memorialized at the Normandy American Cemetery in France, said Cathy Gorn, National History Day’s executive director.
In June the teams will travel to Washington D.C. to conclude their research by sifting through the National Archives for a week, then travel to France, where they will visit the cemetery in Normandy and the D-Day beaches.
For Davis the program presents an opportunity to understand history in a more profound way, he said.
“Just standing on Omaha Beach,’’ he said, “or Utah Beach in France, is going to be an altogether unique experience.”
Davis and O’Connor are looking at two local men who perished in the Normandy campaign, one of whom they will research in depth: an Army Air Force sergeant from Hingham and an assistant military attache from Boston who was the last American solider killed in the invasion. Once they finalize their choice by Feb. 6, O’Connor said, they will start contacting historical societies and veterans’ groups and try to find the hero’s descendants or other family members. By year’s end, Davis will create a website with all the information he gathers, O’Connor said.
National History Day coordinates the program, officially called the Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student and Teacher Institute.
O’Connor, who has previously done similar research programs with National History Day, said that the experience will stick with Davis for life.
“Obviously we want to know as much as possible of his silent hero,” she said. “But it is valuable for Dylan to go through this research experience even if he hits dead ends to pay tribute to the person whose story isn’t well known.”
By the time he hits the beaches at Normandy, said Gorn, Davis will have completed his research and have written a eulogy for his silent hero, which he will present to the group. The presentation can be life-transforming, said Gorn, with teenagers emerging as “thoughtful, engaged American citizens.”
For Davis, gaining that new perspective is what he is looking forward to the most.
“We all have that idea,’’ he said, “that we invaded Normandy on D-Day, but I don’t know exactly what it was like. . . . Researching a silent hero will help me understand that they were just normal people living through a very tumultuous part of history, and it will put things into perspective.”