War veteran talks history with sixth-graders

Date: Thursday, January 14, 2010
news@princetonherald.com


File photo
Alice and Don Bein visit Huddleston Intermediate where their daughter Miriam Mercer (shown center) teaches language arts. Mr. Bein, a U.S. Army Veteran, spoke with students about his experiences in World War II.

By Jennifer Fike
Staff Writer

History may not be a favorite subject for most sixth-grade students, but no one would know that by the way they listened to a guest speaker Jan. 6. The 84-year-old presenter spent almost an hour detailing life during World War II, while the students soaked up his experiences.

The speaker, Don Bein, is an Army veteran who served in Germany during World War II. While there he teamed with the 9th Armor Division, which was instrumental in the Battle of the Bulge, and captured the Remagen bridge over the Rein river. (Former Princeton band director David Herring wrote a song about the division’s experiences, a song Bein said means a great deal to him and his fellow veterans.)
 
Bein is the father of Huddleston teacher Miriam Mercer, who has invited him to visit her classes for several years in order to educate a new generation of American citizens.
 
During his visit, Bein talked candidly about his life in the Army, from what he wore and ate to the weapons used during the war. The students seemed fascinated by his true tales, sitting almost silently as he addressed them from the cafeteria stage.
 
Along with historical war photos, Bein showed personal photographs from his time in the Army to help bring his story to life. As the students looked at the black-and-white photographs projected onto a screen, Bein named his friends in the photos, then explained how many of them were injured or captured during the war. Like Bein, many of them were drafted right out of high school, he said.
 
Bein said he was originally promised an engineering degree but instead was handed a gun and shipped overseas. “You do
what is required in a war,” he said.
 
With great detail and humor, Bein talked about life in the Army, from the artillery used and  living conditions in Germany, to the menu for the GIs.
 
There were three types of food – baked beans and ham, pork stew and beef stew, plus hard candy, cookies and cigarettes, Bein said. Everyone smoked then, he said, advising the students never to start. When the troops were lucky their meals would be cooked – in trash cans. “Whatever came out of the can, that’s what you ate,” he said. “The trash can was a very  important device in World War II.”
 
Bein also explained why in some of the photos men were wearing sheets and pillowcases on top of their clothes. 
 
It was a particularly bad winter in Europe that year, Bein explained. The men used white material as camouflage over their army green suits, he said.  “American GIs are very ingenious. We could figure out how to do things,” he said.
 
Bein talked briefly about the devastating statistics from the war. Russia lost more than 25 million soldiers, he said, “if you can imagine such a thing.” But he focused much of his attention on the patriotism of America.
 
“We were united. We were not divided in any way,” Bein said of the United States during that time. “We were all about winning that war, and we did.”
 
People who were not overseas serving in the military, were at home conserving gasoline and planting gardens ... doing anything they could to help the war effort, Bein said.
 
His wife Alice later elaborated on her husband’s patriotic sentiments.
 
“I’ll never forget the day of Pearl Harbor,” Mrs. Bein said, tearing up. “Whenever Roosevelt talked about the war, we cried because we knew what it was,” she said. The patriotism at home during that time, was astounding, she said. “The kids need to know that the people were involved at home.” 
 
From the stage, Mr. Bein urged the students to support the U.S. servicemen whenever they had an opportunity. Both he and his wife agreed patriotism is crucial to a nation’s survival and success.
 
Following the speech, as the Beins exited Huddleston’s halls, students continued to thank them for visiting. Dean of Students Cinda Owen told Bein how meaningful his presentation is to the kids. “It really means a lot to them to hear you speak,” Owen told Bein.
 
In addition to his annual visits to Huddleston, Bein has also  spoken in several states to school, church and civic groups interested in learning about the war.
 
“I’m not the only person who does this either,” he said. Many soldiers have chosen to speak about their experiences, he said, in order to keep this part of America’s history alive.
 
For many years Mercer said her father would not talk about his war experiences. She said, “I told him his grandson needed that information. Of course it helps that I'm interested in history also.”
 
“I have invited my Dad to talk to my students since I taught American History in Louisiana.  I feel it's very important for the students to understand this is not just history, it's someone's dad or someone's mother who had to participate in the war,” Mercer said.  
 
“I usually talk to my classes before my Dad comes and remind them that not only is he my dad, he is also a son, a husband, a grandfather, and now a great-grandfather. None of that would have been possible if we had lost the war,” Mercer said.
 
In coming weeks, Mercer’s students will have an opportunity to ask questions of her father by mail, who said he said he prides himself on responding to each inquiry. They will also send him thank you cards for coming to speak to their class.
 
He’s answered more than 100 letters, Mrs. Bein said proudly of her husband.
 
“The students are usually very respectful towards my parents,” Mercer said. “They have some really weird questions, like did you serve under General George Washington, but also some great questions like what made you decide to join the army.” Of course, he explains that he did not have a choice, he was drafted, Mercer said.
 
When asked why he dedicates time to sharing with students, Bein said it is important youth know about history. And what better way to learn than straight from the source.
 
Of course, the students are not the only ones who learn from Bein’s stories. “I'm very proud to hear my Dad talk about his experiences. The funny thing is I hear something new every time he speaks,” Mercer said.
 

Courtesy photo
Don Bein, left, and a friend pose for a photo in their military uniforms during the 1940's.
 

 


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