Language Arts, Social Studies
Ardennes American Cemetery
Charles Hewes, James Vrtatko
“ Every individual who fought in World War II has a unique story. This lesson will allow students to study the profiles of two men killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Students will be able to see that behind the sheer numbers are real men- sons, brothers, husbands, friends who gave their lives for our freedoms. ” -Julie K. Heinz
In this lesson, students will study the profiles of two men killed in the Battle of the Bulge, Captain Charles Dunbar Lancaster Hewes and Private First Class James H. Vrtatko. The lesson will allow students to understand the aftermath and meaning of this pivotal military campaign.
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After D-Day, Allied forces recaptured most of France within a matter of months. The Battle of the Bulge was a major German counter-offensive campaign launched through the densely forested Ardennes region in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. The battle began December 16, 1944 and ended on January 25, 1945. German forces pushed back part of the Allied line — the “bulge” in the front line that gave the battle its name. More than 800,000 Allied soldiers fought in the battle, the great majority of them American, and there were 90,000 American casualties (including 23,000 taken prisoner), making it the largest battle in which American forces have ever fought.
Captain Charles Hewes and Private First Class James Vrtatko were both killed during or after the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, the U.S. military set up an identification lab near Ardennes, Belgium to identify remains and bring closure to as many families as possible. Both Hewes and Vrtatko are buried today at Ardennes American Cemetery, along with more than 5,000 of their comrades in arms.
At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to
- Understand how the Battle of the Bulge impacted American families at home;
- Consider the choices individual families had in regards to their loved ones; and
- Predict and explain why they think families made the choices they did after the war.
Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.1.6-8. Analyze connections among events and developments in broader historical contexts.
D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
D2.His.3.6-8. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to analyze why they, and the developments they shaped, are seen as historically significant.
D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.
D4.2.6-8. Construct explanations using reasoning, correct sequence, examples, and details with relevant information and data, while acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the explanations.
D4.2.9-12. Construct explanations using sound reasoning, correct sequence (linear or non-linear), examples, and details with significant and pertinent information and data, while acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the explanation given its purpose (e.g., cause and effect, chronological, procedural, and technical).
Introducing the Fallen Heroes
- Captain Charles Dunbar Lancaster Hewes, Fallen Hero profile
- Private First Class James H. Vrtatko, Fallen Hero profile
- Map, From Ardennes-Alsace to the Rhine and Beyond
Some Gave All
- Correspondence Organizer
- Letters File, Captain Charles Hewes
- Letters File, Private First Class James Vrtatko
- Decision File, Captain Charles Hewes
- Decision File, Private First Class James Vrtatko
Introducing the Fallen Heroes
- Divide the class into two groups.
- Print (or make available electronically) one copy of the Private First Class James H. Vrtatko Fallen Hero profile for one half of the class.
- Print (or make available electronically) one copy of the Captain Charles Dunbar Lancaster Hewes Fallen Hero profile for the other half of the class.
- Project (or print copies of) the map, From Ardennes-Alsace to the Rhine and Beyond.
Some Gave All
- Print one copy of the Correspondence Organizer for each student.
- Divide the two larger groups into subgroups of three to four students each.
- Print (or make available electronically) one copy of the Letters File for Captain Charles Hewes for one half of the subgroups.
- Print (or make available electronically) one copy of the Letters File for Private First Class James Vrtatko for the other half of the subgroups.
- Print (or make available electronically) one copy of the Decision File for Captain Charles Hewes for one half of the subgroups.
- Print (or make available electronically) one copy of the Decision File for Private First Class James Vrtatko for the other half of the subgroups.
Introducing the Fallen Heroes (15 minutes)
- To help students understand the context of the Battle of the Bulge, show them the Universal Theater newsreel from January 1, 1945, German Drive Rolled Back by Allies.
- Distribute the Fallen Hero profile for Captain Charles Dunbar Lancaster Hewes to half of the class and the profile for Private First Class James H. Vrtatko to the other half of the class.
- Project for the class a copy of the map, From Ardennes-Alsace to the Rhine and Beyond. Point out “The Bulge” and the location of Ardennes American Cemetery.
- Ask students to read their Fallen Heroes profile and underline or highlight at five to ten details that stood out to them.
Some Gave All (45 minutes)
- Break students into smaller groups (three or four students each) with those who read the same profile.
- Distribute the Letters Files for Captain Charles Hewes or Private First Class James Vrtatko (one per group).
- Tell students, When a family member died in World War II, it often took weeks for their loved ones at home to receive the news. For those who were missing in action, the wait could have been even longer. You have in front of you the actual series of letters that were sent between the Hewes and Vrtatko families and the U.S. federal government. You also have investigative reports that military officials would have that would not have been released to the families. While you read these letters, consider the following questions:
- What were the challenges faced by the family?
- What did the family members want to know?
- What answers were the family given?
- Give student groups time to read and discuss these letters in their smaller groups. Ask them to complete the Correspondence Organizer as they read and discuss.
- Teacher Tip: Observe and listen to student discussions. You may want to consider sharing answers with the whole class or asking one student to summarize their group’s findings with the class and have the whole class discuss the similarities and differences between each family's experiences.
- Teacher Tip: Because the Hewes documents do contain one letter written in cursive, assistance might be needed for some students.
- Distribute one copy (paper or electronic) of the Decisions File (for Captain Charles Hewes or Private First Class James Vrtatko) to each group.
- Explain, Now you will be presented with the same choices that the families had. In January 1948, Mrs. Mabel Elders and Mrs. Barbara Vrtatko received letters from the federal government asking them to decide what they would like to happen to their sons' remains. Once your group has a chance to read the file, discuss what decision you think these families would have made.
- Teacher Tip: This task could be assigned as homework if desired.
- Encourage each student group to discuss the options and predict what decision they think the Hewes and Vrtatko families would have made.
Decision (45 minutes)
- Now it is time to make a decision. Each student or group (at teacher discretion) will now take on the role of Mrs. Mabel Elder or Mrs. Barbara Vrtatko. Using the address for The Office of The Quartermaster General (on page 17 of Disposition of World War II Armed Forces Dead), each individual student or group will write a letter explaining the choice that they would have made for their son.
- Letters may be submitted or presented to the class as time permits.
- After all students have made predictions, project for the class the Request for Disposition of Remains Forms signed by Mabel Elders and Barbara Vrtatko (both chose interment in an overseas cemetery).
- Show the eulogies given for Hewes and Vrtatko at Ardennes American Cemetery in 2015.
- Lead a class discussion. Prompts may include:
- Were you surprised at the families’ decisions? Why or why not?
- Why do you think the families made this decision? Can you infer any of their intentions from the letters?
- Why did approximately 40 percent of American families make a similar decision? What factors do you think influenced this decision?
- What would you say to Mabel Elders or Barbara Vrtatko if she were standing here today?
- Teacher Tip: Approximately 60% of families chose to have their loved one’s remains returned to the United States and only about 40% of those killed rest in U.S. military cemeteries abroad. Today Vrtatko and Hewes rest with 5,323 of our military dead at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.
- Students could write journal entries describing the different days’ events from their soldier’s viewpoint comparing the experience of a medic and the experience of a pilot.
- Students could use the Ardennes American Cemetery Website to learn more about their soldier’s final resting place.
- Students could create and answer a Most Often Asked Question sheet for visitors at the Ardennes American Cemetery.
- Students could design a plaque for a visitor’s center at the cemetery to honor the sacrifice of their fallen hero.
- The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains U.S. military cemeteries overseas. These cemeteries are permanent memorials to the fallen, but it is important that students know the stories of those who rest here. To learn more about the stories of some of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, visit the Understanding Sacrifice Interactive Map.
- If students need more background on the campaign, encourage them to visit the World War II Interactive Timeline. Click “enter,” click “1944,” and then click “Ardennes-Alsace Campaign.”
- Students could work in mixed-ability groups to assist those who are English-language learners.
- Teachers could record audio versions of letters as needed to assist struggling readers.