Payton Kelly-McNally

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New Jersey Native at War
Payton Kelly-McNally

More than 15,000 soldiers from New Jersey died during World War II. Today, we are expeditiously bidding farewell to an entire generation of heroes who served our nation during that war. Soon, all that will be left is the history they have created through their words, photos, memories, and experiences. If we are to create a legacy that will honor our soldiers, both living and deceased, we as a state and a nation must devote valuable time and resources to the gathering and preservation of this rich history.

My personal connection to World War II and New Jersey is through my great-grandfather Richard Burns. Having lived much of his life and raising his family in New Jersey, he served in the Navy as a waist gunner on search planes. He flew missions throughout the Caribbean searching for German submarines.

My Great Grampy Burns was one of the greatest men who ever lived. He was brave, selfless, brilliant, and a family man and patriot until he died at age 80. He also shared his history with me. We spent many hours discussing his military career from the time he enlisted to his adventures in naval aircraft. He showed me photos, and we exchanged books about the war. He encouraged my interest in history, and I honored his place in history. I carry a photo of my Great Grampy at Pearl Harbor in my wallet every day. He inspires me to make good decisions and honor my own personal history.

As a young man about to enter high school, I think that more young people should be active participants in the preservation of history. I propose a year long program that incorporates students at high schools across the New Jersey as well as surviving veterans of World War II. Participating students would commit to meeting with and gathering oral histories of New Jersey’s World War II veterans through interviews, writing, and film. Over the course of one year, students across New Jersey will develop powerful relationships with the people who paved the way for their freedom. Students will develop a first-hand understanding of our history, and our veterans’ stories will be told and cherished for generations to come.

Students will compile their research into documentary films, audio programming, written histories, and photo essays. These compilations will be available to residents of New Jersey via the web and to organizations associated with veterans’ affairs and World War II history.

If we are to remember our history, we must first learn our history.