Artifacts tell soldiers' stories

Teen World War II buff brings presentation to his former high school

February 11, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Dressed in World War II infantry attire, David Neidlinger, 18, returned to his old high school recently to give history lessons.

Neidlinger, who graduated from Wilde Lake in 2006 and attends University of Maryland, Baltimore County, spoke to freshman history classes about the war. He showed students some equipment used during the war and discussed the sequence of events.

He has been a World War II buff since he was about 2, Neidlinger said. "My dad and I just watched the History Channel." For several years, he has been participating in World War II re-enactments in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

During the re-enactments, participants dress as they would have during the time period and try to re-create war conditions as closely as possible.

"I do it to teach people about it and also show the veterans that someone actually cares," he said of his interest in the war and his willingness to come back to school and talk to students about it.

Neidlinger wears the uniform of the 29th Infantry Division, he said. He wouldn't mind getting a German uniform, but it would cost a lot of money.

Speaking with the authority of someone who knows his subject, Neidlinger stood in front of Amy Smith's class and talked to about 25 students for more than an hour.

"I thought it was good," said Thorin Arsenault, 14, a freshman, after the class ended. "It was interesting. Better than doing written work."

Smith, who teaches ninth-grade history, said that she did not have Neidlinger in her class when he was a Wilde Lake student but that she knew him. He had called the school asking if he could talk to students about World War II, and she decided his presentation would be a good introduction to a unit about the war.

Students listened intently as Neidlinger made the war come to life by telling what life was like for the soldiers.

Neidlinger brought in the equipment he had collected, including a helmet, mess kit, gas mask and shovel. He has weapons, but he did not bring them in. As he showed students the items, he explained how they were used and how they often were the difference between life and death.

A life belt used during the invasion of Normandy, he said, drowned many soldiers because it went around their waists and left them unable to turn right side up if they were floating upside down. "These will keep you afloat, but will also keep you upside down," he said.

Neidlinger has used the equipment and worn the uniform in many World War II re-enactments. During re-enactments, he said, "everybody at some point forgets that it's just a game."

He knows that boot soles are slippery on wet grass, that a wool shirt is itchy and that a helmet is heavy and feels like an oven on a hot day. He also knows that Americans were the only troops with helmets that could be used as cooking pots.

"The helmet looks really simple, but it's actually a really good piece of technology," he said. "Food is a really big part of any army."

The shovel, he said, was used to dig foxholes. "I've dug foxholes before," he said. "It takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. What they did was, they gave you protection from attacks."

Some of Neidlinger's equipment dates to World War II, and some, like his meal pack, are replicas. When one student asked him how he had collected so much equipment, he replied, "eBay."

Pointing to a world map as he spoke, he ran through the highlights of the war, starting with Germany's 1939 invasion of Poland and continuing through Pearl Harbor, the landing at Omaha Beach, D-Day and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan.

Neidlinger said he hopes to become a history teacher, preferably at Wilde Lake.

Learning about history is the best way to keep it from repeating itself, he said. "When more people see how war actually is, then they won't want it to happen and they'll work toward preventing it."

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