Overland Park & Leawood

Pembroke Hill student, teacher hit the beach on World War II research

Special to the Star

Jay Mehta was born more than half a century after D-Day, but he's earning his stripes in understanding World War II and the individuals who fought it.

The 16-year old Pembroke Hill sophomore and Sam Knopik, a Pembroke Hill history teacher, were recently chosen to participate in Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute, sponsored by National History Day.

The project includes researching a World War II "silent hero" who died during or shortly after the June 6, 1944 D-Day landing on Normandy, which ramped up the Allied onslaught against Nazi Germany. The heroes are chosen from among more than 9,000 American military dead who are buried in Normandy’s American Cemetery on the coast of France.

Mehta and Knopik are one of 15 student/teacher teams in the United States chosen to participate. "I feel honored and excited," said Mehta, who lives in Overland Park. "I never for a moment thought that I would get to be a part of it."

Antonin Dehays, the lead historian for National History Day, will recommend a silent hero from the Kansas City region for Mehta and Knopik to research. The choice will be finalized soon, Mehta said.

"The story of World War II can be told through a lot of different lenses," Mehta said. "The individual soldiers had a family and they had a life and they gave it up for their country, and that is a really powerful way of telling the larger story. It's not just about an army, it's about the soldiers."

Knopik, of Kansas City, Kan., said learning about individual soldiers who lost their lives humanizes history and puts it into context. "They were businessmen, grocery clerks, teachers, lawyers,” he said. “They went to churches, as modern Americans go to churches. Everything was at risk. Seventy years later, was it worth it?"

Knopik noted that future generations will not be able to learn about World War II as he did — from two grandfathers who fought in the war.

"We're at a point where the experience of World War II is no longer shared by grandfathers at the dinner table,” Knopik said. “That generation of soldiers is passing on. So to make these individual stories told and known, it's important to go beyond the dates, the numbers. This is an opportunity for Americans to have these stories told as they should be — the real stories behind all those lives that were lost and the sacrifices that were made."

Mehta has participated in National History Day activities for several years. In 2015 he won first place in the nation for his portrayal of Winston Churchill. He received the Salute to Courage Award at the grand opening of the National World War II Museum's Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries. Mehta won the outstanding state entry from Missouri in the 2016 National History Day competition and was invited to present his performance of the first summiting of Mount Everest at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Mehta said he loves learning about the history of World War II because "there are all these really big themes when you look at world history, and so many of them show up in this five-year period."

Mehta also likes the fact that one can view World War II history from many angles. "You can look at it in terms of the people at the helm, the presidents and prime ministers and the politics, the military tactics and the new technology, or the individual stories like what we're doing here."

Besides the research they will do on their silent hero, Mehta and Knopik are delving into other aspects of World War II in Europe. "We read excerpts of books on Patton, Eisenhower and Marshall over the last week," Knopik said.

Mehta recalled that when he and Knopik were chosen for the program they were told "it's one thing to be accepted to a program like Normandy. It's a whole other thing to do it. It's going to be a lot of work. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be really cool work. The reading about Eisenhower, Marshall and Patton drew me in like a thriller."

Mehta, Knopik and members of the other 14 teams are sharing information through a learning management system known as Schoology. "You post and you comment and you can talk to each other," Mehta said.

Along with learning more about the history of World War II and individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice, Mehta said he hopes to learn more about the process of historical research.

"As a student, you don't often get the chance to add a new story to the canon. It's daunting and crazy to think that we'll be tasked with that. But I think that going through the process of adding something to the historical canon will be incredibly rewarding, and I think it will be an experience that will inform everything I do."

In June, Mehta and Knopik will attend seminars at the University of Maryland and complete their research project at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. They then will go to France, where Mehta will deliver a eulogy at the gravesite of his silent hero.

When they come home they will create a Web site about their silent hero and present their research to area audiences.

"I hope I don't know yet what I'm going to convey," Mehta said. "I've been told by everybody who's been involved in this before that you have no idea what you're about to embark on. I hope that at the end of this project I've gained a new-found appreciation for the people that I'm talking about and studying, for the sacrifices they made."