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Historian salutes veterans of WW II

HILLSDALE - They came from all over to “sing of America” and famed author and historian Stephen Ambrose led the choir.

Hundreds of people converged on the Hillsdale College campus yesterday to learn more about World War II. And as television viewers nationwide readied to watch the much-anticipated miniseries Band of Brothers, the author of the book by the same name, Mr. Ambrose, sang the praises of the veterans who fought in the war.

“It's a love song to America,” he said while visiting the small liberal arts school in Hillsdale County. “This is the legacy of World War II.”

The college organized a week of events featuring World War II veterans and notable historians. The seminar, titled “One of Freedom's Finest Hours: Statesmanship and Soldiership in World War II,” continues through Thursday.

“We are the freest and richest country that ever was and that did not happen because God put his finger on the map and chose us,” Mr. Ambrose said. “It happened because of those who went before us.”

People like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson paved the way, he said. But for this generation, it is the men and women of World War II who should be thanked.

“What's deeply moving to me is when children of today ... come to realize that they live in a great country and they owe somebody,” he said.

Mr. Ambrose began speaking to a packed room at Hillsdale College just one hour prior to last night's debut of Band of Brothers on HBO.

Starting with their drop into France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the story follows the triumphs and tragedies of a group of young soldiers as they move across Europe in pursuit of Hitler's armies during World War II. Known as Easy Company, the men of the 101st Airborne Division were part of one of America's newest military units - paratroopers.

Their true-life tale was gripping, Mr. Ambrose said, and a story that needed to be shared. “I was so impressed by how close-knit this unit was,” he said. “I knew ... I had to write this story.”

The best-selling novel was turned into a $120 million television production that included the backing of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. But most importantly, it depicts life during World War II as it really was, Mr. Ambrose said. It is a glimpse into this reality that the college was hoping to share with its nearly 1,100 students, said Timothy Caspar, director of seminars at Hillsdale.

Throughout the conference, Mr. Caspar explained, the small school is doing its part to honor World War II veterans, a group that is quickly disappearing.

“The challenge will be to keep the memory of what these people did and what it means alive once those who were there are gone,” he said. “This program aims to do that.”

Senior Kelly Heinz said meeting veterans who have experienced the horrors of war has made an event that once lived only in a history book come to life. And as the population of World War II veterans shrinks, there is a new thirst for information.

“There is so much more emotion, sincerity, and reality when you hear about experiences from the people who lived them,” said Ms. Heinz, an English major from Gladstone, Mich. “These are individual men with specific stories, not just statistics of the thousands of people who were there.”

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