Hearing about history first-hand

George Ciampa remembers crossing the English Channel to the shores of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, then waiting to disembark his ship.

"There was 4,000 ships out there," he said. "You could see ships getting hit, bodies and debris in the water, and you're waiting for your turn to get off. You're hearing the shells zooming overhead."

When the 18-year-old finally got onto a small landing craft to take him to the beach, the scene was frantic. He had a rifle, but his job was to pick up the dead.

"I was scared to death," Ciampa said. "Everyone was. If you weren't scared to death, you were crazy."

The World War II Army veteran, now 86 — who served in five campaigns in France, Germany and Belgium, including the Battle of the Bulge — was one of more than 90 veterans gathered at a luncheon Thursday. They shared their wartime experiences with Corona del Mar sophomores for the students' Living History Service Project.

The veterans, most from WWII, in attendance saw battle in Japan, Vietnam, Europe, Korea, the Philippines, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some fought under Gen. George S. Patton in the Battle of the Bulge. Others survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor or were held as prisoners of war in the "Hanoi Hilton."

Small groups of students met with a veteran to interview him or her and make a documentary to better understand the sophomore-level book "A Separate Peace," a novel by John Knowles about two boys becoming adults during WWII.

"The goal of the Living History Service Project is to inspire and engage our students to have a greater appreciation for our veterans' sacrifices and accomplishments, learn about the history of our country and understand what it means to be an American," said Denise Weiland, who organized the project.

The veterans were from the Freedom Committee of Orange County, a nonprofit tasked with making history come alive for the future generation.

"This is one of my favorite things I do at school just because I see the effect it has on students," Weiland said. "It really impacts students and changes the way they feel about our country, our veterans."

Ciampa's mission is making people, and especially students, understand the sacrifices veterans have made.

At 81, he became a nonprofit documentarian, producing three films about WWII. Two of the films, "Let Freedom Ring: The Lesson is Priceless" and "Let Freedom Ring: Memories of France," aired on PBS. His goal is to raise enough funds to get the DVDs in every high school classroom in California.

"After all these years I decided I needed to do something to educate people on the high price of freedom and the consequences of losing their freedom," he said. "The price of freedom is the loss of lives that have been sacrificed by some many young people."

Sophomore Kobe Yank-Jacobs, 15, said he could feel the emotions WWII Navy veteran Robert Stoddard went through during his time in the service. Kobe said he got a better picture of what being in war means.

"I feel much more patriotic," he said. He doesn't plan on going into the military himself, but said he respects those who do. He also felt he got a better understanding than he would gotten have from a book.

His peers agreed.

"I thought it was really beneficial learning about the experiences of the veterans," said Anne Mortimer, 15, who worked with Paul Clark, who served as a doctor in the Vietnam War. "It's something you wouldn't learn in a textbook."

britney.barnes@latimes.com

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

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Interested in finding out more about George Ciampa's nonprofit, Let Freedom Ring? Visit http://www.letfreedomringforall.org or email him at george@letfreedomringforall.org.

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