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History lesson from those who lived it; Holland students hear stories from WWII participants

Ginette Bellittiere was only 16 years old when she joined the French resistance during World War II, hiding ammunition in her skirts and later walking across three quarters of France with her mother.

"It stays with you for life," she told a group of students at Holland Central High School on Tuesday.

Peter Hadley was just an infant when he was found on a train that was stopped by the Allies as it headed east near the area of the Battle of the Bulge.

"If the train had not been stopped, I would not be standing here," Hadley said. "I'm standing here because of people like these people behind me," he said, referring to a panel that included six American veterans: Ed Gresco, Fred Shear, Bob Boye, Bud Chittester, John Rickettson and Angelo Bellittiere, who married Ginette after the war ended.

Bernd Pawig, whose granddaughter is a student at Holland, was a young child living in Cologne, Germany, during the war. He remembered the bombings that began when he was five years old.

"As kids, we didn't really know the danger," he said of the attacks, which got "pretty bad" between 1943 and 1945.

"I still have nightmares of fire," he said.

These were just some of the stories shared with the students as part of a program in its fourth, and possibly final, year at Holland High School. The program included a panel discussion with people who were impacted by the war, a display of World War II era weapons, helmets and memorabilia, and a luncheon.

Like others who served during World War II, the veterans on the panel were referred to as "the Greatest Generation," a designation they seem to be uncomfortable with even now, more than six decades after the end of the war.

"When we got home, we never really bragged about it," Rickettson told the students. "It was what we had to do, and we did it."

Gresco agreed. "I never considered myself a hero," he said. "We had to get the job done, and we did."

"The things these people went through were incredible," said Ron Carr, who teaches AP European and World War II history classes at Holland and put the program together. "It's tough for us to appreciate what they went through."

Many of the students listened as the group told their stories, and a continuous line of students stood up to ask questions of the veterans.

Nathan LoVullo, who is a senior, found the stories amazing.

"I know some of their generation were my age going into this," he said. "I can't imagine jumping out of a plane."

LoVullo said he learned a lot from the discussion.

"It makes me think more of my heritage as an American," he said. "It brings a whole new light to why I'm here. Why I speak English instead of German or Japanese. I want to thank them."

Sophomore Anna Mather said she also learned something. "It's actually really inspiring to hear their stories," she said. She said she felt the program was a good experience.

"We could learn a lot about history," she said. "We learned things you wouldn't learn in a classroom."

Carr said that was a big part of the World War II class, to learn not just about the war, but to do research and acquire writing skills, and learn how to ask questions.

The day was bittersweet for Carr, who said the program is being eliminated due to budget cuts.

"You have to understand the money factor," he said. "It's sad to see it go."