Rolland Yaw, left, of Ticonderoga talks with Ticonderoga High School students about his experiences during World War II. Listening is Bob Sutphen, Ti High social studies teacher.
Rolland Yaw knows the devastation of a nuclear strike. He’s seen it.
“You can’t believe it,” said Yaw, who visited the Japanese city of Nagasaki shortly after the American attack that ended World War II. “The entire city was leveled.
“I remember seeing the silhouette of a man burned into a brick wall,” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”
That explosion on Aug. 9, 1945, killed an estimated 80,000 people immediately. In the days that followed thousands more died from burns, radiation sickness and other injuries.
Yaw, who was serving in the U.S. Navy, was part of the American occupation force at the end of the war. Enlisting the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at age 17, the Ticonderoga man survived the sinking of his ship and took part in several key battles, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa. American casualties at those two battles alone totaled 91,000 men.
Yaw was one of six American veterans who took part in a Ticonderoga High School program Feb. 8. Nearly 90 students had a chance to meet local veterans, interview them and write biographies. It was a joint project of the school English and social studies departments, led by Deb Breitenbach and Bob Sutphen.
“It’s important our students know about our history and the sacrifices of our veterans,” said Sutphen, a social studies teacher. “We want them to have a connection with our local veterans and to recognize their service. It really enriches their understanding our past.”
“The goal is for the students to hear real stories from primary sources; to see what the things they’ve read about in history are all about,” said Breitenbach, an English teacher. “Then we want them to write biographies of these men, both as a writing exercise and a way to remember them.”
Taking part in the program were Yaw, World War II Army Air Corps pilot Bruce Craig of Hague, Navy Cold War and Vietnam Era veteran Larry Lauman of Chilson, Army Korean War veteran John Barber of Silver Bay, Air Force Cold War and Vietnam veteran Tom Provoncha of Ticonderoga and Marine Desert Storm veteran Jim Decker, a Ticonderoga teacher.
Students had an opportunity to meet and visit with each veteran.
“They’re amazing,” senior Ben Karkoski said of the visiting veterans. “It’s insane what these men did. It’s incredibly impressive.
“They (Japanese) sank Mr. Yaw’s ship and he still went back and fought,” Karkoski added. “These are great men.”
Lauman, served 22 years on submarines, enlisting in 1963. He served on America’s first nuclear attack subs and was assigned to the Tinosa, the sister ship of the submarine Thresher
April 10, 1963, the Thresher sank during deep-dive trials southeast of Cape Cod, Mass. All 129 men aboard perished in 8,400 feet of water.
“I get emotional sometimes,” Lauman said, pausing to compose himself as spoke with students. “We knew a lot of the guys on that sub (Thresher).”
Provoncha spent 26 years in the Air Force, seeing duty in Vietnam and around the world.
“I think it’s important that we let these students know who vets are, what they’ve done and what they still do,” Provoncha said. “I want to explain a little bit about the sacrifices of military life.
“A lot of these kids really don’t know about our history and the men and women who have made America what it is,” he added. “It’s vitally important that they hear these stories and never forget.”