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WWII dead honored

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Photo illustration by Nick Anna Altoona Area High School junior Abby Smearman, 16, and social studies teacher James S. Lowe match names of Altoona World War II veterans listed on a panel of the Robert E. Laws Veterans Wall on 11th Avenue with those in ‘‘The Last Full Measure’’ book.

Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, Altoona veterans slain in the conflict have been immortalized as a brotherhood in print.

Altoona Area High School students, led by two social studies teachers, crafted “The Last Full Measure,” a compendium of 355 men and one woman who lost a future in the Alleghenies fighting Fascism abroad.

The 700 pages tell their stories through words and pictures.

James Lowe, one of the AASD teachers leading the project, said each story features information on the person’s military career, circumstances of his death and life before serving.

“It illustrates how a community’s sons and daughters made the ultimate sacrifice during the greatest conflict in the history of man,” he said in an email.

Carolyn Kline was the other teacher leading the project.

Though not from the area, her uncle was one of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The book is dedicated to him.

“They need to be honored and their lives and stories remembered,” Kline said in an email. “I feel this way of all veterans who were killed in war.”

In a January meeting, Lowe pitched the idea to create a book as part of the project-based learning initiative in the district, designed to provide hands-on education for students.

Kline “jumped on board” and the two brought in a combined seven classes to share the work. The group officially started in February.

The goal for each student was to research two to three veterans whose names Lowe had pulled from Altoona Mirror archives. Students had one day a week in class to work on their parts. Each biography took between two and four hours to complete, according to those involved.

Researching was not an easy task, said 11th grader Morgan Lindsey.

“It could become very overwhelming quickly,” she said in an email.

The students used archives from local newspapers the Mirror and The Altoona Tribune, as well as Altoona High School yearbooks, census and cemetery records, military databases, websites and local family members of the veterans. Kline said the Altoona Area Public Library was “very helpful” in the research process.

Mia DeStefano, grade 11, was another of the 127 students to contribute to the project. One of her assigned biographies was Nicholas Cancilla, a U.S. Marine Corps private who died at the age of 18 during the Battle of Tarawa. A resident of the Gilbert Islands discovered Cancilla’s remains in 2011.

DeStefano said in an email that this story caught her eye. She later discovered that Cancilla was her relative.

“I was absolutely shocked and proud that a family member of mine died during their service for their country,” she said.

Lowe said he also discovered a relative, Lt. Richard Johnson, who survived the Bataan Death March but died as a prisoner of war. He found relatives or friends of 14 fellow church members and of two men from the block where he grew up.

He said Altoona veterans lost their lives in events large and small — “from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the Invasion of Normandy, from the Battle of the Bulge to Iwo Jima, from Bataan to Belgium, and from deadly plane crashes to the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.”

The students worked for multiple months to uncover the stories. Their first assigned biography was due March 9: the day schools closed due to the pandemic.

“That completely disrupted our timeline,” Lowe said.

The team was forced to shift to 100% virtual learning and missed their goal of having student’s work completed for Victory on Europe Day on May 8. Some students were not able to finish their assignments until the end of the school year, Lowe said.

Throughout this time, the two teachers edited and revised, giving feedback along the way. Kline said she spent all day, almost every day, at her dining room table reading, checking and rechecking the drafts. Lowe also dedicated nearly every day to the project, sometimes for eight hours a day, seven days a week.

Despite the setbacks, the team had its final draft ready in July, and held its original publishing date in time for Aug. 15: 75 years after Japan announced its surrender (Victory over Japan Day).

During those months, the teachers launched a Facebook page and posted one veteran’s story daily.

Lindsey called the opportunity to contribute “an honor.”

Though at times the challenge of researching made her so frustrated she wanted to give up, she said she was glad she pressed on.

“I was motivated by the fact that I had the opportunity to tell the stories of people who were not able to do so themselves,” she said.

The love of local history and its importance to the “bigger picture” inspired the teachers and students throughout the project, Kline said.

DeStefano wants to be a history teacher.

“It was a fulfilling accomplishment learning about the history of World War II and the servicemen from Altoona,” she said. “I’m proud that we completed the book and how it turned out in the end.”

Mirror Staff Writer Dom Cuzzolina is at 946-7428.

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