A football game that never happened during World War II has kicked off a revival of honor, remembrance, education and patriotism for the entire Locust Valley, N.Y., School District – grades K-12 and beyond – in memory of soldiers who were called to fight and die in the winter of 1944. The game the troops had planned to play on Christmas Day was called off due to the Battle of the Bulge.
In recent years, however, it’s been back on, played in Normandy by soldiers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and more recently in the first stateside Remembrance Bowl Sept. 23 at Locust Valley High School.
Organizers and school officials hope the multi-layered program that includes classroom studies, guest speakers and veterans will spread across the country, with support from local American Legion posts.
“We’ve ventured into these waters to create a project, a game, a curriculum – with no map, no plan – but a guiding idea that American history and love of country needed desperately to be back into schools,” said Dr. Kristen Turnow, superintendent of Locust Valley Schools, during one of many gatherings in the days leading up to the Remembrance Bowl game. “The curriculum in this pilot week has been nothing short of amazing. The response of the students and the level of engagement has been remarkable.”
Patton Legacy Sports – working with Operation Democracy, Amis des Veterans Americains of France, area American Legion posts and others – brought to the community much more than a pep rally ahead of the big rivalry game between the Locust Valley Falcons and the Cold Spring Harbor Seahawks.
The program gave birth to pro-America curricula – written and developed by educators with help from military-connected groups – for students of all ages.
• For children from kindergarten to second grade, the focus was on American pride, with lessons on symbols like the U.S. flag, the bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty and red remembrance poppies, as well as the roles of the different military branches.
• Third through fifth-grade students studied World War II and specifically the relationship between the United States (Locust Valley in this case) and France (Ste. Mere-Eglise, the first French town liberated after D-Day, which received relief from Locust Valley after the war) and how that friendship continues today.
• Older students were offered classes that more deeply explored World War II history, including the films “Mother of Normandy” and “The Sixth of June.” Both documentaries connect to the Locust Valley story and the 1947 establishment of Operation Democracy, a nonprofit organization that arose to help war-torn Ste. Mere-Eglise and was resurrected 18 years ago to pay contributing tribute to the relationship between the towns, which helped start Sister Cities International.
In the days leading up to the Sept. 23 football game, students assembled in auditoriums, classrooms, the high school gym and other locations in the community to honor veterans, military service and the community’s legacy of support for those who have served in uniform.
“I’m excited about the work that we’ve done here to really cherish our history …” said Dr. Turnow, who has one son deployed in the U.S. Armed Forces and another getting ready for boot camp. “… just being in the classrooms and seeing all of our students from kindergarten all the way up to the 12th grade learn a little more about who we are as Americans – what brings us together, what keeps us together – and really think about the historical moments and pay tribute to all the men and women who have done so much for us, to ensure that we have our freedom.”
Academics, athletics and military service were among the highest values of World War II Gen. George S. Patton, a former Olympic athlete who was in command of the camp in 1944 when the original football game – promoted as the “Champagne Bowl” because it was in Reims, heart of champagne production – had to be canceled due to the fighting.
A commemorative journal to inaugurate the first stateside Remembrance Bowl put it this way: “The athletes will represent the soldiers who would have played in the game, many of whom never made it home. The spectators, sharing this sacred duty of remembrance, will represent those who would have been there to witness this celebratory game.”
Helen Patton, granddaughter of the famous four-star general, discovered a yellowed program promoting the Champagne Bowl while doing some research in 2017. “I opened it up, and it was blank inside,” she told one of the crowds in Locust Valley prior to the game. “That must have been where that little white paper was supposed to go to give you all the details of the game, who was playing, where you might be eating afterwards, who to thank... well, that part didn’t happen. Those guys got the green light.”
She asked the football players from both teams to “be conscious of those who couldn’t play.”
Michelle Strauss, who leads Patton Legacy Sports for the Patton Legacy Foundation, reiterated that message to the players: “You stand in the shoes of the soldiers who could not play the game that never happened. Think for a moment about what you are doing Saturday – you’re finishing their game … you’re playing the game that didn’t get played. What you’re doing is making history.”
Chloe Gavin, daughter of Lt. Gen. James Gavin, who commanded paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division in predawn jumps behind enemy lines before the beach landings on D-Day, reminded the students that the freedom they enjoy today was purchased by soldiers not much older than them.
“They were only 18, 19 or 20 years old,” Gavin said. “Most of you are close to that age now. Can you imagine yourself going into combat? They couldn’t either. But those young soldiers in 1944 survived because of teamwork in their lives, in combat. When they were under enemy fire in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, Holland and Sicily, they were fighting for each other. They were fighting to survive. They had to rely on each other in the middle of a firefight. No one could just quit. They survived because of determination and because of their trust in each other.
“During the past week, you’ve learned about the battle of Normandy. What happened matters because it changed the course of history. A lot of those 18- and 19 year-olds didn’t come home ... you’re living a nice life here because those young men were willing to fight in a foreign country. Some of them had to give up their lives … for you, so you could be here. All of us here tonight – players, parents, teachers, coaches, friends, myself – we owe a debt to those young men.
“Keep those players in your hearts when you play on Saturday. Take their courage and determination and teamwork and use it in what you do. You and I – all of us here – need to repay our debt to those young men. They gave us time. They gave us our lives here. We need to use the time they gave us and use it to do good in our lives.”
Locust Valley Board of Education Chair Margaret Marchand described the curriculum and the project as “an overwhelming success. The most incredible response has been coming from the children.” She noted that hundreds of middle school students who watched “Mother of Normandy” on Sept. 21 were rapt by the film and its story of Simone Renaud, who launched the AVA in France after World War II. “I’ve never seen 11, 12 and 13-year-olds not move for 68 minutes straight. It was riveting.”
Speaking to students, AVA President Maurice Renaud described the turmoil, death and destruction of the German occupation and the war into which he was born. “So, understand why we have such a great remembrance, and how grateful we are for the American soldiers who gave their lives or got wounded there, coming to a country where they did not speak the language – did not know anybody there – it’s a real supreme sacrifice which we have to admire. I have to thank all the American people for what you did for us in 1944.”
Speakers explained another local connection to the students. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., a founder of The American Legion, grew up in nearby Oyster Bay and is now immortalized in a Statue of Liberation in Ste. Mere-Eglise. It was there, in August 1944, where he was temporarily laid to rest after dying of a heart attack five weeks after storming Utah Beach.
As Operation Democracy has evolved over the last two decades, it has made another American Legion-involved connection with the high school: Flags for Freedom. Howard A. Van Wagner American Legion Post 962 in Locust Valley and Operation Democracy have presented a 3-by-5 cloth U.S. flag – along with a U.S. Constitution – to each graduating senior in an annual commencement day ceremony for the last several years.
“This is what I call civic pride in local history that has relevance to current events,” said Cathy Soref, president emeritus of Operation Democracy. “Locust Valley High School has become the most fantastic school – an example of what education should be in the United States of America. We hope to spread this, to instill a sense of pride to our students, pride in being American.”
“This is amazing,” Bayville American Legion Post 1285 member Renato Spampinato said at a breakfast before the homecoming parade. “The Patton Foundation – it’s unbelievable how they are supporting us. This is wonderful – a fantastic situation. The curriculum. People coming from around the country …. from around the world.”
The Air Force veteran added that even he has learned a lot about the community’s military history through the Remembrance Project. “It’s a shame I didn’t know this stuff before. The kids are asking questions (and learning that) we’re not such a bad country. In fact, we’re a pretty damned good country. And we happened to save the world.”
Strauss announced that four students who went through the Remembrance Project curriculum and two of the football players will join the Patton Sports Legacy group in Normandy next June for the 80th anniversary of D-Day.
Expecting the program to expand widely, she said Locust Valley will always be known as the origin. “Locust Valley will always be our template. We will always connect with Locust Valley to improve the education from the curriculum. We will always be in partnership with Locust Valley, hopefully for years to come, as the project evolves.”
Helen Patton agrees that this first stateside effort was a big success. “We are gathering our steam to see what is needed next … I’m so happy that the hope I had at the moment of seeing that (invitation to the Champagne Bowl) for the first time is being made good on. This is going to have legs.”