By Mark Messer
Special to The Ellsworth American
BLUE HILL — A junior at George Stevens Academy who traveled to the Netherlands to honor a World War II solider has called her experience “truly life-changing.”
Elia O’Hara of Blue Hill was one of 10 students from the United States to participate in the National History Day Silent Heroes project in November.
Each student researched “a serviceman or woman of the U.S. armed forces who died honorably in World War II” or soon after due to injuries received in battle, according to the Silent Heroes website.
The subject of O’Hara’s eulogy was First Sgt. Louis Patrick Levasseur, who was born on Nov. 26, 1918, in Van Buren, Maine, very close to the town where O’Hara spent the first five years of her life.
It took O’Hara six weeks to research and write the text for the video eulogy, which is expected to go online in January at nhdsilentheroes.org. When asked what struck her most, O’Hara said it was the sacrifice of so many families during World War II.
“His brother just the year prior had died in the South Pacific,” she said, and Louis Levasseur “was actually reported missing in action for about three months,” a long time for his parents to wait and hope to hear that he was alive.
The research and writing process created a “strong connection” to Levasseur for O’Hara, but it was only after arriving in Amsterdam that she began to realize how impactful the trip might be.
Though she read Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” in eighth grade, O’Hara said, “nothing compares to the feeling I got when I walked to the bookcase, up the narrow stairs, and into the annex.” The experience left her and chaperone Kate Kennedy, a social studies teacher at GSA, “in awe.”
Before giving the eulogy at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, O’Hara met the 91-year-old man who started taking care of Levasseur’s grave a few years ago, Josef Vaessen.
At age 16, Vaessen was the only person in the area who spoke English, O’Hara said, so American soldiers naturally turned to him with questions. After he learned that a soldier with whom he was particularly close died in battle, Vaessen rode his bike 15 miles each way until he located the soldier’s grave at the makeshift cemetery. Since then, he has adopted more graves to care for, the latest being Levasseur’s.
Vaessen “is the kindest and most giving person I have ever met,” said O’Hara, and having him join Kennedy at the reading of the eulogy “made that moment even more powerful and humbling.”
In addition to giving eulogies, O’Hara and the other program participants also placed markers, “Vectors of Memory,” along a nearly 2,000-mile trail that will follow the footsteps of the Allied troops from London to Berlin when it is completed in May 2020. The Liberation Route Hiking Trail will celebrate the “freedom, harmony, and peace” that resulted from the end of the war almost 75 years earlier, said the Liberation Route Europe website.
“Walking through the same woods along the same trail as the U.S. soldiers did was a chilling moment,” O’Hara said. “As I walked, I imagined the utter chaos and horrendous fighting” that took place then, and how “because of their bravery, I can walk” in this peaceful place.
To learn more about Liberation Route Europe, visit https://b2b.liberationroute.com. Scroll down for their story about the U.S. Students Vectors of Memory project. It includes a short video about the project. The video can also be viewed on YouTube.