Courtesy Dr. Tom Long Columbia City High School senior Liam Hesting and his teacher Kristin Rentschler stand at the graveside of Joseph M. Jordan, an Indiana soldier who died on D-Day.
Courtesy Joseph M. Jordan was an Army paratrooper who died on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – while administering aid to a fellow soldier.
Photo by Dr. Tom Long After delivering a eulogy for Indiana soldier Joseph M. Jordan, Columbia City High School senior Liam Hesting takes a moment at his grave.
Thursday, October 11, 2018 1:00 am
War hero lives on
Project helped teach student meaning of hardship, sacrifice
Blake Sebring | For The Journal Gazette
When Army paratrooper Joseph M. Jordan jumped out of a C-47 airplane over France on June 6, 1944, he knew he was fighting for the future but there's no way he could have dreamed how he would affect a Columbia City High School student 74 years later.
Just before Christmas, Liam Hesting and social studies teacher Kristin Rentschler were notified they'd been selected to participate in the Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom, Albert H. Small Student and Teacher Institute, a program that has 15 student-teacher teams involved in a rigorous study of D-Day and World War II each year. Rentschler and Hesting applied for the institute program after Hesting and a group of students won a National History Day contest as sophomores.
After months of study in the institute, Rentschler and Hesting's job was to prepare Hesting to present a eulogy for an Indiana soldier who died on D-Day.
They selected Jordan, a Muncie native who died at age 21. He successfully landed his jump that morning but was killed while attempting to help an injured comrade.
“I knew going in how good the experience could be for me, so I tried to get everything out of it I could,” said Hesting, now a senior. “It was intimidating. I was nervous because I didn't think I was good enough or the right man for the job to speak.”
But, with Rentschler's help, he became the right man.
They spent six months studying, investigating and interviewing Jordan's relatives to learn more about him. They were required to read five books and several articles and watch numerous videos about that day and take part in weekly online conferences with the other teams who were studying their own silent heroes.
“I love learning about history so it was a lot of fun – instead of teaching to have someone else teach me,” said Rentschler, who just began her 18th year in teaching.
To write the eulogy, the pair interviewed some of Jordan's survivors, including his widow, Phyllis, who is 94 and living in Florida. She and Jordan had a son who served in Vietnam and died in 2011. It was a difficult phone conversation, Hesting said.
“We could definitely see the memories going through her coming over the phone,” Hesting said. “It was very moving.”
Phyllis went on to marry another WWII veteran, and they had six children.
“It was exciting and gut-wrenching all at once to talk to her,” Rentschler said. “We knew we were asking questions that were maybe going to bring up old wounds, but she is maybe the only person who is alive who knew Joe. Phyllis is the only one who could tell that Joe actually loved jumping out of planes and thought it was a blast. Those pieces of information were little treasures that we were lucky to get hold of before Joe's story faded away.”
Both Rentschler and Hesting said they could tell by Phyllis' emotions that she felt it was important to tell Jordan's story.
“I think it helped her come to peace with this whole thing a little bit more,” Hesting said.
In June, Rentschler and Hesting spent a week in Washington, D.C., working with history professors at George Washington University and touring the capital. Then they left to tour Normandy, which included visits to Omaha and Utah beaches.
“Still, all along the coast are the German bunkers containing the machine guns,” Rentschler said. “That's when it really hit us both to imagine climbing out of a boat with 25 to 50 pounds on your back, trying to keep track of your gun and trying to run against that gigantic beach without getting shot. I don't know how they did it. I don't know how anybody made it. Looking at the terrain really helped bring the stories to life for us.”
As the time for the eulogy approached, an apprehensive Hesting practiced, more appreciative and understanding of the similarities he had with Jordan. He fully understood the importance of the moment.
“It was definitely personal, like getting to know our guy as a friend or someone who had lived in your town,” Hesting said. “It was emotional, but when the time came, with all the work I put in leading up to this, I just basically had to finish it off and deliver it. I wanted to do a good job for him, and I wasn't too nervous then.”
Though he had to raise his voice to overcome nearby lawn mowers at the American Normandy Cemetery and Memorial, Hesting spoke powerfully and proudly about Jordan, saying in part, “The pain experienced in the wake of PFC Jordan's death is still felt today; in a phone call with his widow, it was obvious that she still lives with the pain she felt all those years ago when her husband made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, while helping his brothers in arms.”
Hesting said it was an amazing experience, one that has changed his life's plan. He'd always liked studying history, but now he wants to major in it at college, possibly to become a lawyer.
Hesting, who plays right and defensive tackle for the Eagles, was already a leader, said Columbia City High School football coach Brett Fox, but now he's more willing to step forward as a team captain. Fox noticed the maturity in Hesting when he returned from France.
“If Liam gets subbed out in practice, he goes straight over to the scout team and tries to sub in over there,” Fox said. “You never have to worry about how Liam carries himself in the classroom or hallways, either. The kid wants to sit up front, answer questions and do his best at everything.”
Hesting is also a state track qualifier in shot put and discus.
“I feel like I don't take the life I have for granted as much any more after I learned all the sacrifices that all of those soldiers made,” Hesting said. “We learned about a few who were 16, 17 or 18 who were going overseas and fighting for their country and dying. It just makes you feel like I should not take anything for granted because I have the easiest life in the world compared to those guys.”
Hesting and Rentschler recently made an emotional presentation to the Whitley County Consolidated Schools board about their experience and are looking for more speaking opportunities after the football season ends. The feelings for both are still intense when they speak about Jordan, who in a way became a friend to them. They want to tell his story and keep his memory alive.
“Liam really gained an appreciation for the word sacrifice,” Rentschler said. “So many young people think so many things are hardships. I think Liam now understands that those aren't real hardships. They might be annoyances, but now that he really got to learn about our silent hero and learn about what that young man gave up and what he sacrificed and went through to fight for our country. He understands now that is real sacrifice.”