HUDSON FALLS | Matt Rozell remembers the moment he realized his life’s work.
It was 1984, and as the nation marked the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, President Ronald Reagan spoke at Normandy.
“Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for,” he said of the Americans who fought in World War II, during an iconic speech.
That year, “The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two” by Studs Terkel was published. In it, Terkel looked at the war from a historical perspective, told through some 120 interviews with the men who fought, as well as nurses, entertainers and bureaucrats. Terkel was awarded the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for the work.
“It was the first historical piece on World War II entirely told by regular people,” Rozell said, recalling the 600-page book was “this thick,” holding his thumb and index finger inches apart.
The book raised an interesting question about war, Rozell said.
“The war was put on a pedestal — it should be, especially now that so few of the men are left — but is any war good?” he said. “It was a fascinating book.”
“That’s when I woke up and that’s when my teaching career began,” Rozell said. “I think that’s when it finally dawned on me how important World War II was in history and in the fabric of our own country here, let alone the world.”
Rozell did, in fact, become a teacher — history, of course — at his alma mater, Hudson Falls High School.
But as important, he has devoted his life since to telling the stories of World War II veterans.
This summer, Rozell independently published “The Things Our Fathers Saw: The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation from Hometown USA.”
“I’ve thought about it for 20 years,” he said. “I was at that point, I had to get it out of me.”
The book recounts the war in the Pacific Theater, told from interviews and, in some cases, journal entries, of men from the Glens Falls area.
“The Things Our Fathers Saw” works through the war, beginning with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, following some of the men from enlistment, through battles and being taken prisoners of war. He includes lectures from veterans visiting his classroom, photographs and maps.
“It’s a war that, outside of Pearl Harbor and the dropping of atomic bombs, very few people have an understanding of what happened in the Pacific Theater,” Rozell said.
At a recent book signing, Rozell sat next to Alvin Peachman, 93, one of the veterans featured in the book.
Peachman is a longtime Hudson Falls resident and retired history teacher, who had Rozell as a student.
His classes were much different than Rozell’s, though.
“I don’t remember any teachers talking about their own experiences,” Peachman said, adding that he didn’t talk much about his service until years later. “Everybody wanted to learn about Adolf Hitler.”
Rozell studied history at SUNY Geneseo, but didn’t realize how much of a gap in knowledge the American public suffered until he started interviewing veterans and chronicling their stories.
“My interest was what Al Peachman was talking about when I was in school — Adolf Hitler this and Adolf Hitler that,” Rozell said.
“When you call for World War II stories and these people are talking about things you don’t know a thing about, you realize you have so much more to learn,” he said. “It’s the experience of a lot of Americans, I think.”
Rozell now teaches a separate course at Hudson Falls High School focused on World War II. The class is so popular, some students can’t get in.
Vinny Murphy, a senior, is among the lucky ones this semester. He wanted to take the class after attending a Rozell-organized assembly as a middle-schooler.
“For him to be a teacher and have an interest and want to share that with the students is very refreshing,” Murphy said. “He wants to teach us and remember this stuff and really take it to heart and make sure stuff like this never happens again.”
Until Rozell, Peachman said, the men who served in the Pacific got little recognition.
“We always fell second to Europe, although we did almost all the fighting in the Pacific,” he said.
As World War II veterans age — two of the men featured in Rozell’s book died in the past few weeks — Rozell is feeling a sense of urgency.
“I really wanted to get it out while some of the guys are still alive,” he said.
The book is a culmination of efforts that began years ago, when Rozell started inviting World War II veterans into his classroom in the early 1990s.
“It was really a two-fold thing: I need to make history alive for my kids; it’s their grandparents, their aunts, their uncles, in some cases, their actual parents who were involved in the war; and take that person’s story and find out more how this person fits into the big picture of the war, the big overall standard history, but at the same time realize that you as the interviewer, or the person talking to the adult, you are actually creating a new piece of history, which is really exciting,” Rozell said.
Students’ interest grew even more when, in 2001, Rozell initiated a living history project, A Train Near Madgeburg, in which he and his students reunited Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who liberated them from a death train in April 1945.
“I think for most teachers … that’s why you teach, to bring history alive and, boy, did that ever do it for them,” Rozell said.
Rozell and his students were named People of the Week in September 2009 by Diane Sawyer on “ABC World News” for their work on the project.
The liberation is the subject of Rozell’s next book, which is tentatively scheduled for release in the summer of 2016.
“My story is to make it known,” Rozell said. “It’s their story; it’s in their words.
“I need to do it before everybody is gone.”