Bethel coach makes WWII pilgrimage

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2012 - 7:11 AM
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Bethel foootball coach Steve Johnson found inspiration in the history and character of a World War II regiment, to the point that he incorporated the trek of Easy Company into a class that included visits to key European battle sites.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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In January, Steve Johnson will return to the battlefields of Europe for the third time, to stand where the American servicemen of Easy Company fought and died and triumphed during World War II. The Bethel football coach will be thinking of their sacrifice on Monday as well, when Americans observe the Veterans Day holiday.

Johnson was drawn to the story of Easy Company through the book "Band of Brothers" and the television series of the same name. In those men, he saw the qualities he wanted to instill in his players: leadership, courage, selflessness, honor.

That inspired Johnson to create a course called "Band of Brothers: A Study of Uncommon Leaders," in which Bethel students travel the path of Easy Company from its training camp in Georgia to the sites of its ultimate battles.

During Bethel's interim term in January, Johnson will take 26 students -- including several of his players -- to places such as Normandy, France; Eindhoven, the Netherlands; and Dachau, Germany. In contemplating the heroism that occurred there, he said, his heart sometimes breaks a little. Mostly, it overflows with gratitude, a feeling he said only grows stronger with each visit.

"To go there and actually be in those places, it's incredibly moving," said Johnson, who will lead the trip with associate head coach Jimmy Miller. "Our young people who go, it probably quadruples their patriotism. And these kids, every time they see a serviceman, they thank them. They have this brand new attitude that becomes part of you after you've experienced this.''

The book and TV series "Band of Brothers'' chronicles the exploits of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, E-Company. The students read the book before visiting the sites in chronological order, beginning with Camp Toccoa in Georgia, where the men underwent basic training.

They travel next to the village of Aldbourne, England, where the unit trained for the D-Day invasion of France. Cecil Newton, who was a member of Britain's Royal Air Force during the war, will give them a tour of the town, then share his memories of Easy Company over tea. Then it's on to Southwick House near Portsmouth, England, to view the maps used by Allied military leaders as they planned the D-Day invasion.

As the students travel, they view segments of the "Band of Brothers'' DVD to get a feel for what happened in the places they are visiting. In France, they go to the Cotentin Peninsula -- where Easy Company's paratroopers fought after parachuting into Normandy -- and stay in an old farmhouse. They also visit the Normandy American Cemetery, where more than 9,000 members of the U.S. military are buried. "We make sure we get there at 5, when they play Taps,'' Johnson said. "There's not a dry eye."

In Eindhoven, the group visits the site of Operation Market Garden and spends an afternoon at a veterans home, where members of the French and Dutch Resistance recount stories of their activities during the war. After traveling to sites where the Battle of the Bulge was fought, they move on to the Dachau concentration camp memorial.

On the two previous trips, Johnson said, he was struck by the thankfulness still expressed by many people in the small towns where the war was fought. His own sentiment, too, has been enhanced, on Veterans Day and every day.

"In the places we go, they really honor what the Americans and others did," he said. "You just can't help but feel unbelievably grateful."

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