In “crushing crowds” on the streets of Ste. Mère Église, France, last week, 27 cadets from Omaha Benson High School led Omaha Beach survivors in a D-Day parade of thousands.
“I felt like a superstar,” said William Combs, 17, describing the people stopping and asking to take photos with him as the cadets toured the city. “People were very respectful and intrigued by what we do and what we have done for them.”
After 70 years, the people of Normandy still celebrated their liberation.
“It’s going to help me know that doing the right thing does get noticed and it does help,” he said.
Benson’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps was selected more than a year ago to march in the D-Day parade. The group returned home late Tuesday.
The cadets arrived in Paris June 4 and headed to Omaha Beach, where ally troops stormed the beach against German fire in 1944. During their time there, the cadets heard firsthand accounts from World War II veterans.
“They knew the sacrifice that was given that day,” said retired Lt. Col. Michael DeBolt, the senior Army instructor at Benson High School.
Among the visits they made was one to Brittany American Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony where they heard from President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s granddaughter, Mary Eisenhower. She said that the general who served as supreme allied commander of Europe suffered eight heart attacks and that the war broke his heart.
“I think for students to hear that, that it is an incredible price to pay, but to have the courage to do the right thing, and have their moral conviction,” DeBolt said. “It’s a heavy cost. It’s a true burden.”
The students also visited the pristine lawns and white stone grave markers in the Normandy American Cemetery, where they saluted the graves of Nebraskans and participated in another wreath-laying ceremony.
The group also visited Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral.
For Combs, who will be a senior this fall, the trip was his first time on a plane, his first time out of the country, the longest time he spent away from home.
And a majority of his fellow cadets had never flown either.
When the plane touched down in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the way home, the cadets — and the 52 WWII veterans on the plane — were greeted with a firetruck spraying a water arch and U.S. Airways employees saluting and waving U.S. flags.
At Eppley Airfield, dozens of parents waited anxiously. William’s mother, Chandra Combs, stood with a towering bundle of green and white balloons.
“The trip overall was something I’m never going to forget,” William Combs said. “I learned that even though it happened 70 years ago, people still remember it and honor it. It’s never going to be forgotten.”
The experience started a year ago, really, when the group started fundraising for a trip that would ultimately cost $121,000.
Each student was responsible for $1,200. Combs mowed his grandmother’s lawn and picked up odd jobs around the house. The students worked concessions at the College World Series, hosted carwashes, pancake feeds and march-a-thons.
“And they did it,” said Nancy Moreland, Combs’ grandmother. “They earned it. This wasn’t given to them.”
The JROTC program at Benson has 136 students, said DeBolt, who has been instructor for three years. Students in the program are held to a higher standard, he said.
Benson was one of six junior ROTC programs in high schools asked to attend the march. Before the trip, Benson’s JROTC had traveled only to Florida.
The group included 12 seniors, 15 juniors and sophomores and nine chaperones.
The trip excluded freshman, since they weren’t in school when the group began fundraising. Otherwise, the trip was open to any cadet who could obtain a passport and had good academic standing.
Of the students in the program who graduated, 13 are heading to the military, DeBolt said.
“Our mission for junior ROTC is to make them better citizens,” DeBolt said. “When I look at 30 years of active duty, I carried the torch to defend this country, and I know I’ve passed that torch on. I know it’s in good hands.”
The students have changed after the trip, he said.