Before Daniel Scharfenberg had even left New Orleans for his trip to France, a monsoon hit the city out of nowhere, flooding the area he was visiting, soaking everyone and everything. He joked that he got trench foot before ever leaving the country.
Earlier this year, Scharfenberg of Chanhassen, received a $5,600 scholarship to attend the National World War II Museum’s summer program in Normandy, France. The World War II museum is located in New Orleans, and offers the overseas summer program for students studying World War II.
Scharfenberg, a 2016 Chanhassen High School graduate, will be a senior at Bemidji State University this fall, a history major with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things World War II. He also had an internship at the Carver County Historical Society this summer.
Scharfenburg arrived in New Orleans on July 7 where he and the rest of the study group spent two days at the National World War II Museum. Once in France, they visited the beaches and battlefields of Normandy, through July 22. His study group consisted of 20 undergraduate college students ranging in age from 19-26 from across the U.S.
Walking the battlefields, the small villages where soldiers fought, and the cemeteries where Allied and Nazi dead are buried was sobering. It brought to life the WWII history that Scharfenberg has immersed himself in since childhood. And dispelled some myths.
"We have this Hollywood version of WWII that's accepted," Scharfenberg said, "that the majority of the Allies were Americans, the French and the British Commonwealth countries, fighting the German Nazis. But there were a lot of non-northern Europeans fighting on both sides. You didn't have to be a tall, blond Aryan looking soldier to fight for the Nazis.
Q: What was it like being with fellow WWII history students who share your passion?
A: Everyone had an interest but to varying degrees. Most of the people were really friendly and our tour guide is thinking of scheduling a mini-meetup down the road, and I know I'll keep in touch with about five from the group. I've read so many books about WWII and they appreciated the little details I would add about what we were seeing or visiting. It was kind of cool that people would say to me, "You're one of the most interesting people in this group."
Q: What made the biggest impression on you?
A: It was heartbreaking to read the engravings on some of the soldiers' headstones. An unknown American soldier's headstone said, "Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known But to God." I put a white rose on a Hennepin County soldier's grave. A Gordon M. Stoen, a private with the 120th infantry division who died June 7, 1944.
Q: Would you like to return?
A: I do, in particular eastern France. Normandy has become so commercialized. It's where everyone goes with all the museums, souvenir shops. Normandy has such a mystical significance, but no one remembers what happened in central and eastern France. I'd like to travel on my own, backpack, stay in hostels. My high school art teacher did that and it always inspired me.