When John Nitcy visited the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, he had no idea it would inspire him the way it did. “There, I saw a movie called ‘Beyond All Boundaries,’” said Nitcy. “I then realized I did not know much about the history of World War II. I started thinking of ways I could help.”
He returned to his teaching job at Sandpoint High School and started an Honor Flight club at the high school. His first goal was to have his students raise money to help supplement the efforts of the Inland Northwest Honor Flight whose mission is to transport Inland Northwest war veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices. But Nitcy quickly realized it was also an opportunity to educate the younger generation about the importance of our history and what the soldiers sacrificed.
His journey began with a database project where two of his students recorded the names of the soldiers listed at Sandpoint’s War Memorial Field and had them research where these soldiers who died in combat were buried.
“There were 82 on the wall from World War II,” said Nitcy. “And over half of them were buried overseas.”
Nitcy then met a teacher from France while visiting the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center just south of Sandpoint. They kept in touch, and in honor of the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, Nitcy and his Honor Flight students made wreaths that were sent to Normandy.
The French teacher and her students laid them at the graves of the Sandpoint residents buried there, Lewis North and Frank Bradetich. There was also a large wreath that had poppies on it listing all the names of the World War II soldiers listed on the wall at Sandpoint’s Memorial Field. It was just one of the many great relationships created by the Honor Flight club.
“One of the neat things that came from the club was the number of people who came and talked to me about World War II,” said Nitcy, referring to people who wanted to share their own stories or stories of their loved ones.
A few years ago, Nitcy traveled to Washington, D.C. as a guardian on an Honor Flight, an experience he will never forget. “We hear all about statistics, but these are real people,” he said of those veterans he has met. But he still was eager to learn more about the history of World War II, specifically Normandy.
“I had watched the movies ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ and going to Normandy became part of my bucket-list items,” said Nitcy.
So when he retired in June of this year, he traveled to Normandy, France, as part of a tour called Beyond Band of Brothers (BeyondBandOfBrothers.com).
He, along with 28 others on his tour, toured the region and were touched by what they saw. “For three years I had read everything I could and watched everything I could about this time in history, but when I got there I realized I knew very little. Until you see it in person and stand where the soldiers stood, you cannot imagine its vastness,” said Nitcy, who now plans to re-read the books he read prior to his trip. “Imagine 14,000 paratroopers coming down behind the beaches in the middle of the night.”
In the Normandy American Cemetery, there are 9,387 American soldiers buried there. Almost every grave has the date of death as June 6, 1944 or shortly thereafter.
“Visiting the cemetery was definitely the highlight of my trip,” said Nitcy. “I have never seen a more beautiful piece of real estate. There is not a weed in the place. Normandy itself is absolutely beautiful. It’s quiet, green and rural. It’s hard to believe a conflict of that magnitude could happen there.”
One thing that struck Nitcy is that the graves are lined up perfectly and all face America. “It was humbling to be there,” he said.
Nitcy was surprised at the vastness of everything. “The landing beaches were 45-miles long,” he said. “The same distance from Sandpoint to Coeur d’Alene.”
The five-day tour was fast paced but extremely well organized. The group stayed above Omaha Beach and enjoyed not only the historical aspect, but also the opportunity to tour the region of Normandy.
The reality of what happened on those beaches on June 6, 1944 is reinforced by the fact that little has changed since that day. With bomb craters, barbed wire, bullet holes in fences and massive guns still in place, one gets a real sense of what it must have been like during this infamous day.
The gratitude the French feel toward America is evident, as American flags are not only found along the beaches and in the cemetery, but throughout the region on buildings and other places.
If there is one message Nitcy hopes to convey to others, it is to ask questions. “Veterans do not want to talk about their experience with many people. But many do want to talk about it with the people they love,” said Nitcy, who adds one student took his advice, and it created a whole new relationship with his grandfather. “In the end, it’s not the treaties and dates that are important; it’s to teach the kids what these people did for them.”
Nitcy encourages anyone who has not seen the movie Honor Flight to do so. It has inspired him and his students to honor our veterans of all wars and has taught them about the sacrifices men and women have made.
Note: While Nitcy has been in contact with the family of Frank Bradetich, he has not been able to locate any family of Lewis North. If anyone has information on where his family is, please contact our magazine and we will put you in contact with John Nitcy. For more information on Northwest Honor Flight, go to www.inwhonorflight.org