By Mark Ambrogi
Nicole Cordes plans to be a pediatrician. Yet the history lessons she has learned during a special project will be ones that will always stick with her.
Cordes, who will be a senior at Lawrence North High School in August, and Lawrence North social studies teacher Rachel Couch were selected to take part in Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student and Teacher Institute in France, by National History Day, a nonprofit organization. They were one of 15 student-teacher duos selected and the only one from Indiana. Cordes and Couch returned from the 12-day trip, which included several days in Washington D.C., on July 2.
Their mission was to research a World War II veteran John J. O’Callahan, from Indianapolis, who died as part of the D-Day invasion on June 6 ,1944, where the Allied forces invaded Germany-occupied Northern France with beach landings in Normandy. O’Callahan was a member of the 101st airborne division and part of the 501st parachute infantry division, where he was part of the paramedic troop.
“It changed my life and changed my perspective on the American side that we hadn’t been taught in the history books,” Cordes said. “It was an emotional moment for me to hear all sides of the history and the stories.”
Cordes gave a eulogy for her veteran, planting American and France flags and laying a rose on his grave at the American Cemetery.
“It was very personal and emotional to see the names of our soldiers after studying them for six months,” Cordes said. “The cemetery was gorgeous and we had a beautiful day. I learned a lot. We went to a lot cemeteries for Germans and Americans.”
“The experience was very life-changing,” Couch said. “You get to feel like you know this person so to visit his grave is emotional. It was especially moving the teenagers who know that most of people were so close to their age. Seeing all the research all the students did and how they got to know the veteran was a powerful experience.”
The group also visited Omaha Beach, the code name for one of the landing spots for the Allied forces.
The trip started with several lectures a day in Washington D.C. area, with discussions on strategies on war and D-Day. They also visited the war memorials.
Cordes reached a younger brother of O’Callahan, who was still alive in Texas but he didn’t really want to talk about his family’s loss. O’Callahan had another brother who died in the war near the end and his mother died in 1946.
Cordes, who will be taking French V this fall, plans to minor in French in college.
“The bus driver didn’t speak an ounce of English so I got to act as an interpreter while I was there,” Cordes said. “So that was another great aspect of the trip that it really improved my French.”
Cordes is still working on a website for O’Callahan, which should be completed this fall. O’Callahan attended Arsenal Tech High School for two years but had to quit to help bring in money for his family. O’Callahan worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps agency in 1940 and 1941. He also was a fireman for the Indianapolis Union Railways before he enlisted in the Army in 1942.